More than thirty years ago Hilary Charlesworth, Christine Chinkin and I were law lecturers in Australia interested in applying feminist perspectives to our field of interest – Public International Law. After three years of discussions, conversations, draft papers, and conferences we were successful in publishing “Feminist Approaches to International Law”. It changed our lives. But that was thirty years ago. In 1992 the world was a very different place than it is now. The Soviet Union had splintered into many different independent states. Eastern Europe elected democratic governments in nations that had been buried under years of communist rule controlled by Moscow. Climate change and the environment were growing problems on the horizon. World peace seemed possible and the security mechanisms under the UN seemed workable again for the first time since the Korean War. The 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing seemed to herald a new future for women and girls everywhere. Violence against women was, and remains, an unsolved problem. Our article could not cover everything. Fortunately, many international scholars have filled in some of the gaps. We each continued to work on institutional and structural sexism in international law; women, peace, and security; Indigenous perspectives; and environmental concerns, especially climate change. In this essay I will briefly touch on just one of those issues – climate change and environmental justice.
*Retired from Aboriginal Studies, Langara College, Vancouver; Northern Director, Akitsiraq Law School, Nunavut; Sallows Professor of Human Rights, University of Saskatchewan; University of Sydney Law School; University of Canterbury, Aotearoa-New Zealand; Singapore National University, Faculty of Law. Currently residing in British Columbia, Canada. Footnotes from original article omitted.
Climate change and the environmental degradation of our planet are the defining issues of our time. The United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] tells us that keeping global warming to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels is crucial to avoiding a “truly catastrophic unravelling” of our current climate system. We are already seeing extreme weather events on a global scale after just 1°C of warming over the past 150 years, including unprecedented heat waves (as in the Pacific Northwest, Summer 2021), droughts, flooding (again in the Pacific Northwest, Autumn 2021 effecting many of the same communities scorched by the “heat dome” earlier that year), melting ice, and extreme storms. It seems increasingly difficult to keep temperatures from rising to 2°C and beyond. The key is to stop pumping greenhouse gases into our atmosphere and oceans. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres put it:
“Today’s  IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership . . .With fact upon fact, this report reveals how people, and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change.”
We now have less than a decade to reduce our global emissions enough to have any chance of avoiding temperature increases above 1.5°C. Meanwhile, corporate entities and governments are pursuing economic development policies that are mostly counterproductive to the goal of avoiding environmental catastrophe. Law, especially international law, and climate science both tend to be dominated by men focusing on male-centred issues. Reliance on legal norm creation and “hard” science mean that issues surrounding human rights, cultural and Indigenous rights, social issues, and even psychological affects tend to be ignored as peripheral, “soft”, less urgent.
Siila Watt-Cloutier, a leading Inuit authority and activist on climate change and pollution, makes it clear that climate change and environmental degradation are both Indigenous and human rights issues. As Inuit keep reminding us, it’s not just about polar bears.
Feminist Approaches to Climate Change and Environmental Justice
An approach which takes “patriarchal values” seriously is expressed in eco-feminism’s “ethic of care”:
“. . . The current relationship we have with nature is hierarchal and fragmented because it is rooted in a culture of separation created by a ‘masculine’ modernity. The patriarchal values of rationality and power have othered the natural environment and women . . . [A]n ethic of care approach can transcend the modern patriarchal structures that have promoted dominion over nature . . .”
There is much value to this approach. It exposes the gendered nature of concepts such as “rationality”, “nature”, “modernity”, and looks at the gendered dualism created by Cartesian approaches to what it means to be human. It gives some historical context to the marginalisation and “othering” of nature, women, and people of colour. In 2009 Sherilyn MacGregor of the University of Manchester commented on the lack of research into the gendered nature of climate change, and began work on filling in the gaps, arguing that tackling climate change must include a gender analysis or it would remain unjust and unsustainable.
A relational approach addresses both climate change and law from another perspective:
“It is well documented that environmental and climate justice problems are associated with local and global extractive industry operations and that concrete legal and policy reforms will be necessary if we might hope both to prevent and remedy harms. . . Thinking of environmental justice focuses our attention on sites of local harm, which are intertwined with histories of colonialism and racism. Climate justice, on the other hand, draws our attention to the international and the ‘global’, which, while equally intertwined with colonial and racist histories, present different challenges of the imagination.”
“Both environmental justice and climate justice are also intertwined with gender justice, whether the focus is upon those who are most vulnerable to harms or those whose voices are crucial as agents of change. Attention to extractive industries (mining, oil, and gas) and gender justice leads us to the tools of international human rights law, including the recognition of the human rights of women and girls, the responsibilities of businesses to respect human rights, and the duty of states to protect human rights from irresponsible business conduct.”
Indigenous Women’s Perspectives
The inclusion of “gender justice” into this discussion moves us away from a liberal focus on the autonomous individual and towards an analysis of positions of vulnerability, empowerment and responses to regional relations, nation-states, the international community and, above all, global material systems – land, water, ice, oceans, weather (both “normal” and catastrophic) and the human-built environment. Indigenous women’s perspectives are, in my view, central to any discussion of climate or environmental justice on a local or a global scale.
For Indigenous women “gender justice” cannot be divorced from communal, ancestral, and spiritual perspectives. For example, protection of water is seen within many Indigenous communities as closely tied to women’s roles as mothers. Water is seen as alive and connected with biological aspects of motherhood and women’s bodies. There are spiritual connections between water and family, water and blood, water and childbirth, and water as life. Maori activists, Lakota Water Protectors in North Dakota, and Indigenous women and men in the Amazon River basin argue that rivers are alive, and that they have rights. Women and water systems are seen as having reciprocal responsibilities of life-giving and protection. Oil and gas extraction is destructive of these living systems, and dangerous to the integrity of all life on “Mother Earth”. Indigenous peoples, including women, see their responsibilities as, not only local, but also global guardians of the Earth.
There is no doubt, as Laurie Zoloth writes, that:
“There will be a time, in most of the world, when the last well goes dry. And this is because so much of the world lives already on the brink of a dreadful thirst, a life only made tolerable because women travel great distances to find the wells or the rivers or the ditches, scoop up the water, and bring it home. They carry it on their backs, or their heads, or on their hips, like a child. In Africa alone, women walk forty billion hours a year to bring this water home. In sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls are responsible for 72 percent of all the water collected. This means that women spend a significant proportion of their lives simply carrying water. And as the climate steadily gets warmer, droughts will become more frequent and water will become more salinized, harder to find, and farther away from habitation. As it now stands, clean water is already unavailable to over 633 million people—one in ten of the people of the earth. Diseases from contaminated water kill on the aggregate more people than any form of violence, including wars and acts of terror.”
The Problem of Patriarchy
But there are deeper issues that deserve a more extensive analysis than I can give here. First, modern industrial societies are the result of centuries of the accumulation of patriarchal power at every level, from the home to the Law of Nations. Our organizational structures, our institutions, our militaries, our health and education systems, our laws, our religions, our private enterprises both national and international are all deeply infused with patriarchal values of how power works, how authority structures are organized, and how individuals and groups interact. This is permeated with aggressively competitive scrambles for the accumulation of obscene levels of wealth, status, and influence. These values have divorced almost every institution with any significance from the natural world and have successfully relegated almost everyone, outside of a small, privileged circle of (mostly) white men, into a limbo of “otherness” – beginning with women and girls.
The result of this is that our planet is facing an extinction event of massive proportions, possibly endangering not only human civilization but also life itself. The foundation of how these systems retain their power is violence – from abuse by individual men on women, children, and other men, to international warfare. Fossil fuels are the last frontier of industrial capitalism, and the wealthy who feed off this system are well aware of this. Another problem, both in the use of violence and our attitude towards the environment, is how we use language to shape our place in the world.
Discourse and Material Reality
There is a major distraction being produced both at the corporate capitalist level, and at the theoretical level, on what our current crises mean. A problem within our modern patriarchal societies lies in sometimes mistaking what we conceive of as “truth” with what might be called material reality. Language, narratives, or discursive practices create a kind of “reality” that can dominate our thinking to the extent of denying material reality altogether. “Truth” can be a fuzzy concept, depending on whose truth is being spoken and by whom.
There are many different “truths” glimpsed in different ways by many different knowledge systems. All “truths”, whether connected to material reality or not, are interpreted through narratives created in human minds. We are a pattern-seeking animal. These patterns of what we perceive as “truth” can be very convincing. Without narrative frameworks in which to interpret the world, “reality” becomes chaotic and dangerous – random objects and events we cannot control. As a result, we do partially create what we see as “reality”, or “realities”, both collectively and individually. Some of these are verifiably false (the earth is flat, the sun rotates around the earth, the universe was created in six days, biological sex doesn’t exist, climate change is a hoax). Or they can express some element of meaning that might well be “true” for some people in some sense. There can be many ways of explaining a deeper truth (history, myth, art, science, religion, spirituality).
Some would say that reality is nothing more than a human construct created by language or discourse and can be changed by creating a new discursive framework. The idea seems to be, not only to create a more just collective framework for people on the margins of our current world order, but also to deconstruct language and existing social structures out of which new “realities” of individual liberation and empowerment can be born. In this theory of meaning there does not appear to be any objective reality, merely subjective “realities” or “truths”. It’s not that this actually creates a new material reality – there is no such thing according to this epistemological framework – but that dominant discourses around whiteness, masculinity, heteronormativity, etc. can be reversed and overthrown.
There are many problems woth this, the first being the suggestion that material reality, apart from discursive “realities”, either does not exist or is unimportant. According to this, climate change can be interpreted as “not real”, as just a hoax or a trick of words, while the material evidence of climate change surrounds us. Ultimately, what we are all talking about is power, who has it, who controls it, and who doesn’t. If all of reality is just a set of “hegemonic discursive practises” revolving around power, then “reality” cannot exist outside of those man-made discursive practices. How we deal with our current existential crises, including climate change, cannot effectively change the real-world consequences of both our words and our actions within this framework. Not only does this create an ongoing struggle consisting of endless conflicts over who controls the discourse of power; it also creates the bedrock of totalitarian political systems on all sides of the political spectrum. It traps humanity, especially women and children, in an inescapable recurring loop of violent power struggles, from the bedroom to the UN Security Council.
Cogito ergo sum – “I think, therefore I am” – is one of the great mistakes of modern philosophy. The words are from one of the original masters of our existing “hegemonic discursive practises” – René Descartes. It is the master narrative of modern patriarchal society. A genuinely woman-centred feminism knows that we don’t exist because we think we do. We think, feel, act, and observe because we exist. Within that existence we, and other conscious life forms, create meaning – sacred, scientific, linguistic, cultural, gendered – that is ultimately embodied. Our existence as part of reality is not ultimately a product of our minds or words. We don’t just make it up. We humans, male and female, including our crazy clever conscious minds, our living relations with the rest of this world, our universe, our bodies, our place on this Earth, are all products of material reality. We do not create reality, we interact with it, not as gods but as humble humans participating in the world as it is or might become.
Meanwhile, as Svitlana Krakovska, the lead Ukrainian scientist on climate change noted while putting together her country’s final report for the IPCC, while she was hiding in her basement with her four children escaping Russian bombs falling on Kyiv:
“I started to think about the parallels between climate change and this war and it’s clear that the roots of both these threats to humanity are found in fossil fuels, . . . Burning oil, gas and coal is causing warming and impacts we need to adapt to. And Russia sells these resources and uses the money to buy weapons. Other countries are dependent upon these fossil fuels, they don’t make themselves free of them. This is a fossil fuel war. It’s clear we cannot continue to live this way. It will destroy our civilization.”
This is reality. Our collective inability to recognize this, or to do anything about it, means that the men who control this modern capitalist patriarchal world have talked themselves, and many others, out of understanding what is real and what is not. What the natural world will allow us to do, and what it won’t. Who is human and who isn’t. We have become lost in solipsism and narcissism, and our words are nothing more than an endless argument about power making us powerless to change the real conditions of injustice that we can see all around us. Patriarchy is built on this denial of reality – the disengagement of male minds from the material reality of bodies and of the world they, and all of us, live in.
As Dr. Krakovska says, “We cannot continue to live this way.”
How do we begin? Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away, in a wide green land – there was a small and as yet insignificant person who lived in a hole in the ground. His name was not Ishmael, nor was he a White Rabbit, but he and his fellow heroes of a thousand faces, names and addresses did go on a long journey where something was found, many things possibly happened, and perhaps something was also lost.
Meanwhile, at home, as Penelope spun and weaved her web, and Alice climbed up to peer into the looking glass, the ladies waited and waited and waited for their hero to return or, in many cases, rescue them from that “fate worse than death” which would appear to be spinsterhood. We all acknowledge the universal truth that a man who returns from a long journey with a large fortune must be in want of a wife. Unfortunately, many suitors without incomes also desire a comfortable establishment from which to wander. Happy families are declared by the men to be all alike (and boring) while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – probably because of some woman or other. Something many wives and daughters (and mistresses) might disagree with. And of course the title of my book echoes a great story by Rudyard Kipling that was made into a wonderful film, which is now perceived as sadly racist and colonial, which it always was of course, and which was Kipling’s whole point. Neither he, nor John Huston (the 1975 film’s director) seem even remotely aware of the female power that brings it all crashing down to earth. The colonial and masculine/feminine trope of the Captive, powerfully reinvented from James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans” to John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s “The Revenant”, and to many stories before and since, is another one.
My story begins on a bright cold day in April, the cruelest month as TS Eliot tells us, but Chaucer and Shakespeare do not. The clocks would have been striking thirteen if there had been any clocks, or a month called April. Owen’s mother died that day. Or maybe, yesterday; he couldn’t be sure. He was only nine years old and his namesake, Lord Owen of Fenn, was not as clear in his speech as he usually was. All Owen himself, our young hero, could remember was sitting between Master Jarryd and Lady Rose of Brock in their library in front of the fire, as Lord Owen of Fenn looked at him with deep sadness and told him, “Lady Mariamne, your Mother, has passed away over the Bridge of Light. I have come to take you to the Palace. Your Father wishes to see you, and you can see your Mother one last time.”
And so, dear Reader, I have to start somewhere, and that sad beginning seems as good as any other. Except of course that stories never really have a beginning, or an end. They just start arbitrarily in the middle of something (“It was a dark and stormy night”) then carry on until someone dies; or they’re all killed; or, Dear Reader, she marries him, or finally says yes; or the hero is born; or, in what is probably the loveliest final paragraph of any story written in the English language, lovingly recreated in John Huston’s final film “The Dead”:
. . . snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Sometimes the story gradually peters out into a long disquisition on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything until the poor Reader forgets there were ever any characters to care about at all. Or, the author gets tired of his or her unruly actors and puts a final period on it all. And so they lived happily ever after, or not, until enough readers demand a sequel, and off we go again tilting at windmills and slaughtering endangered species, such as dragons.
There need not be a Reader, of course; Dear, Poor, Idle, or otherwise. Stories have been told since long before words were put onto paper, or papyrus, or leather, or stone, or woven into cloth. I imagine stories have been told around the fire since our ancestors first discovered how to light a flame and keep it going. That was more than a million years ago, long before humans, or Stanley Kubrick’s depiction of us. But what about the words you say? They must have had “language”. No, not really. Stories can be told without words. Songs, dances, pictures on a cave wall, or stacked into a stone cairn, or flickering on a screen, anything really. And why do we assume that only humans tell stories? Whales sing, apparently inventing new songs every year; elephants call to each other in deep subterranean tones our ears cannot hear; wolves howl; birds warble, chirp, croak and caw; monkeys chatter; bees dance. They’re all telling stories.
The best stories aren’t just communicating information, however beautifully or eloquently put. They take us into the world of Story – of histories, real or feigned; of traveller’s tales and tall tales; of emotions and relationships; of action, adventure and violence; of the many ways we intelligent creatures make sense of the Reality we assume is out there. Of how we take this jumbled chaos of perception and turn it into patterns our brains process in meaningful ways. The stories we tell, and how we tell them, are very fundamentally who we are. Those stories can also change the Reality we think they are describing, but only up to a point.
Both Reality and Story are deeply connected, but both have Rules. Stories that stray too far from Reality will not survive, and might actually lead us into terrible mistakes. The Rules of Nature, of the Universe and of living societies, even our own individual sense of ourselves as subjects of our own stories, are inexorable. We disobey those Rules at out peril – which is what many of the greatest stories are trying to teach us. Perhaps the very first story was sung by a mother or a grandmother to a frightened child to keep them safe and calm in a world of both great danger and abiding love.
This story is, like all stories, very much a collection of other stories refracted through the prism of my own connection to Story and Reality. Some of the narratives I draw on are well-known and I am very conscious of the debt I owe to their authors, from “Anonymous” and “A Lady” to the enormous universes of JRR Tolkien, George RR Martin, Ursula K Leguin, Isaac Asimov and the fantasies and fiction they have inspired. But stories also appear in quieter contexts – the sharp silhouettes of Jane Austen; the town and country of Anthony Trollope; the darkness of Charles Dickens; and the heavy yearning of George Eliot. Stories can seem universal and can travel through time in a variety of guises. Just ask Kiviuq, the hero of the great Odyssey of the Arctic, or Prince Rama, or Gilgamesh, or Ulysses. Or Penelope. Or Molly Bloom. Or Scheherazade. Or Lady Murasaki. Many of these big stories have been translated into cinematic universes, which is how I and many others visualize the written and spoken words that created them. And, like all stories, this one is very personal. I know these characters, I know the predicaments and mysteries they get caught in, I know their world, and I know the stories they tell themselves, or have read or heard within this story.
Stories are about life and living and what these things mean in a cosmos which appears to care nothing about us. The universe in this story can be – just as our own is – cruel, pitiless, causing needless suffering to the most innocent, while evil-doers (including at times my own hero, Owen) live on and seem to prosper, while there is also love, and humour, and ordinary days where nothing much seems to happen. Until they die. No one escapes that fate. (Unless there really is a sequel). But the stories that try to make sense of it all, which might even be the source of life itself, or at least of our conscious ability to perceive and create living realities, sometimes do survive for a surprisingly long time. I have no illusions that this is one of those stories, although it has formed a very large part of my own inner world for many years.
As poor Owen absorbs the loss of his Mother, and what that means to himself and to the others in his life, we begin with the children.
“What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?” Jane Austen, Jane Austen’s Letters.
If Jane Austen were alive and writing today, she would be sitting in her favourite chair by an upstairs window in the cottage near Chawton House in Hampshire where she, her sister Cassandra, and their mother lived by the grace and favour of their adopted brother Edward Austen Knight. And, she would have replaced her “little bit of ivory” with – her cellphone.
That is what I am writing on now. All thumbs! And what an inspiration that little bit of ivory is! The whole Bennett family, Mr. Darcy and all in Pride and Prejudice; Fanny and that colonizer and slave-owner Sir Thomas Bertram and his family in Mansfield Park; poor little Anne Elliot and her wayward Captain Wentworth in Persuasion; Emma, Mr.Knightly, Mr.Woodhouse, poor Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates in Emma; and that masterpiece of a story about stories, Northanger Abbey. Imagine such wonders of “strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow” she might have written, or that I might write, on this slightly more than two inches of silicon and plastic I now hold in my hand.
Well, perhaps not “manly”. Miss Austen, who always published as “A Lady”, was the most feminine of authors. Not in a frilly, bodice-heaving (entirely due to tight corsets), blushing pink and modestly downcast eyes sort of way, but with a watchful glance and a listening ear, wit and sharp tongue carefully modulated into some of the most brilliant English prose ever written, Miss Austen was both deeply conservative and radically feminist. (Yes, it is possible to be both). Comedy was her medium, and the relationship between the centrality of women (mothers, potential brides, and spinsters) and the rather peripheral necessity of men, was her constant theme.
I had the delight a few years ago of visiting a long lost cousin (with some old friends of mine from Australia) who lives in Alton, Hampshire, near Chawton, and discovered that she (my cousin) is married to Edward Austen Knight’s great-great-great-great grandson. My cousin-in-law lived in Chawton House as a boy, and now works in the house and grounds which was bought out by an American philanthropist and is now “. . . a Grade II* listed Elizabethan manor house . . . It is run as a historic property and also houses the research library of The Centre for the Study of Early Women’s Writing, 1600–1830, using the building’s connection with the English novelist Jane Austen.”
Well . . . I’m a writer, and am related to someone who is married to a distant relative of Jane Austen, but that’s about as far as the similarities go. My sister is named after a river in Ireland and lives in Smithville, Missouri. Unlike Miss Cassandra Austen she is not named after a daughter of a Trojan king and a prophetess doomed never to be believed. My brothers are not clergymen, wealthy landowners or admirals in the Navy – but perhaps the less said the better. Other than my own bit of ivory, which contains what seems like the entire universe (as did Miss Austen’s novels), I’m a less ambitious storyteller. Instead of writing about the characters I see around me in my own life, and from them extrapolating a universe in a microcosm, I want to explore the universe and write about bits of it on Facebook.
But there’s more to storytelling than that. Much of what we call our knowledge of “the universe” or “the world” is an interaction between an experience of something “out there”, and our own interpretation of that “something” organized through language and narrative structure. Our experience of ourselves as conscious beings is also mediated through language and narrative. Myself as a “Self” mostly consists of memories, dreams and experiences tempered by my several speaking and non-speaking voices, and the stories I was brought up with, including Jane Austen. Our collective memories of the past are always shaped by our own narrative voice, which is in turn dependent on generations of stories, some of which we hardly know we know. This is as true of fleeting shadows of our long ago childhood as it is of the most authoritative histories.
The brilliance and danger of this storytelling is that our brains can make it up. Jane Austen’s prose seems to recall so clearly and crisply the reality of a world that existed more than two hundred years ago – but barely mentions the Napoleonic Wars through which she lived and in which her brothers fought. Barbara Tuchman and Margaret MacMillan describe with clarity and precision the months leading up to and immediately following the catastrophe of the First World War. But they have little to say about the histories of the working men and women in the great class struggles of the early twentieth century that Rosa Luxemburg lived through and writes about so powerfully, and from which so many of the casualties of that war – of all wars – come.
To get back to the “manly stuff”, reality and making things up becomes even more difficult when we turn to the dragon school of storytellers. Dragons almost certainly never existed (I’m hedging my bets here), although they are popular subjects of mythmaking right across Eurasia from the heroic tales of dragons and dragon slayers in Celtic and Germanic stories to the dragons of Imperial China. Heroes slaying monsters seem to be a nearly universal theme in storytelling around the world (cf Joseph Campbell), but dragons have a peculiarly iconic status. Their history is old, deep, rich and very detailed. And these stories continue to reverberate. Think of Smaug in JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit (visualized brilliantly in Peter Jackson’s otherwise disappointing film trilogy), and the memories of dragons memorialized in The Lord of the Rings. Or George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire immortalized in the TV series Game of Thrones. Whatever you might think of how the TV series ended, the dragons were spectacular.
But they don’t exist. They never existed. There are no dragon fossils, no DNA remnants of fire-breathing lizards, no first-hand witness accounts, no grainy footage of what might be dragons (as there is at least with Bigfoot). Someone somewhere made them up. And now they seem as real and as dangerous and as magnificent as all those manly heroic tales tell us they are. I love stories about dragons. I always did. But – what exactly are they?
Biology, archeology, genetics, physics and chemistry tell us fire-breathing dragons never existed, not could they. What possible configuration of the physics of heat and the chemistry of fire could exist within a living being? Jane Austen never wrote about them, nor likely cared much about them other than a vague knowledge of St.George and the Dragon as a founding English myth or fairy tale. Or perhaps passing by a local “Dragon of Wantley” or “St. George’s” Inn. It’s difficult (although not impossible) to imagine Mr. Darcy as a St.George. Two hundred years before Jane Austen Miguel de Cervantes made “tilting at windmills” the modern ironic commentary on heroes fighting monsters and giants in Don Quixote de la Mancha. But dragons and other monsters survived and live on in the amazing descriptive language, cinematography and special effects of storytelling magic in oral histories, books, video games, films and TV.
The difficulty lies in what Descarte’s “theatre of the mind” or Plato’s Cave has to do with reality. Do our stories exist independently of material reality? Obviously, sometimes they do as dragons demonstrate. Does a material reality separate from narrative structures, language or discourse even exist? Are we just making it up as we go along? Or do our stories, even stories about dragons, allow us to interact with and make sense of a cosmos otherwise indifferent to our existence? What role did a myth of St.George and the Dragon, and myths of heroism common to both Britain and Germany, play in galvanizing hundreds of thousands of young men to sacrifice their lives in the mind-numbing atrocity of 1914 to 1918. JRR Tolkien survived and went on to create Smaug, Sauron, hobbits and the mythic world of Middle Earth. George RR Martin created a more cynical, less linguistically rich world of flawed heroes and human monsters – and dragons.
Are dragons lurking on the outskirts of Austen’s world after all? Whole books, both fictional and non-fictional, have been written about where Heathcliffe went for three years in the middle of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. But what was Captain Wentworth doing after Anne was persuaded to reject him? Fighting the dragons of Napoleon’s navy while earning his place as a hero in Anne’s eyes, and getting rich in prize-money, while she languished in dutiful, useful oblivion, not even allowed to wait for him. Where did Mr. Darcy come from? And Mr.Knightly? In Sense and Sensibility Marianne, rebelling against the sensible Moated Grange her sister Elinor accepted with such quiet courage, finally found her hero in Colonel Brandon. Aside from a stint in the West Indies and his predeliction for rescuing young women in distress, we know nothing about him. Where were his dragons?
Or are our stories a series of conversations with the universe itself? Are we co-creators of the reality we all share? Is material reality simply the actualization of the mind of an observer? As Robert Lanza says in The Grand Biometric Design (2021):
Quantum mechanics consistently and accurately predicts how and where the basic particles of matter will appear, with the amazing revelation that prior to observation, they exist in all possible places at once—dwelling in a sort of blurry probability state that physicists call “an uncollapsed wave function.”
Material reality might well be simply a “collapsed wave function”, but, contrary to the story told by too many quantum physicists (most of whom are male), there is more than one observer. Just as there is more than one storyteller. Not all the observers are recognized. They often masquerade as “A Lady” with no particular story to tell. Like Dorothea in George Eliot’s Middlemarch:
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. (as quoted in Maria Tatar The Heroine with 1001 Faces).
There are multitudes of observers everywhere and each has a story. Not all are heard or recognized. But all participate in our conversation with the universe that might, in fact, be how our shared reality is co-created. Consciousness and mind are not individual mechanisms in a mechanistic view of an individual brain. The stories themselves are always collective, told over generations by many individuals entangled with storytellers through time and space. Times and places. First mothers and grandmothers, then children. The narratives locate us and connect us. Even dragons have quite a lot to say about reality.
Words matter. They’ve always mattered. But right now, in a world dominated by big existential issues, the use and misuse of language on social media, the internet, and all media platforms globally has never been so important. What we say to each other, what words we use to say it, and who else we say it to can cause great harm on both a personal and a public level. Or it can help clarify what we’re actually facing in the real world of life, death, bodies and minds, whether public or private. The world of reality. Postmodernist writers like Michel Foucault and Judith Butler have always known this. Words or discourse create power. They are power. Power acts on every level, from the privacy of our dreams and the creation of our selves, to the alteration of the entire world. The discourse of Humanism and the Enlightenment – of human rights, democracy, freedom, equality, the rule of law – promised a revolutionary new way of being human on this planet. It did partly keep that promise. Discourse as ideology has to have some basis in reality, or it will become irrelevant. Words can’t just be tools of the powerful.
As EP Thompson said about the rule of law in his classic work on 18th century justice Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Acts (Breviary Stuff Publications, 2013, p.410):
If the law is evidently partial and unjust, then it will mask nothing, legitimize nothing, contribute nothing to any class’s hegemony. The essential precondition for the effectiveness of law, in its function as ideology, is that it shall display an independence from gross manipulation and shall seem to be just. It cannot seem to be so without upholding its own logic and criteria of equity; indeed, on occasion, by actually being just. And furthermore it is not often the case that a ruling ideology can be dismissed as a mere hypocrisy; even rulers find a need to legitimize their power, to moralize their functions, to feel themselves to be useful and just. In the case of an ancient historical formation like the law, a discipline which requires years of exacting study to master, there will always be some men (and perhaps women?) who actively believe in their own procedures and in the logic of justice. The law may be rhetoric, but it need not be empty rhetoric. . . .
But we can’t escape the evidence of our own senses. What that discourse of rights and freedoms has delivered after 250 years of struggle, defeat, and too many compromised victories is a global system of obscene levels of capital accumulation, unregulated “free” markets, and the consequent destruction and impoverishment of the natural world and a majority of the world’s people who live in it. That world doesn’t just depend on the ruthless take over of a planet and it’s living inhabitants, including humans, out of which those capitalist and colonial revolutions of 1776 and following were created. Our world – the one we’re living in right now – also depends on the words we use to describe it; to tell the stories of what it is, how it was created (by whom and for whom), and where it is going. The truth of those stories, and the power they’re hiding, can often be found in the silences. In the “gaps” and the erasures. The stories we don’t tell, the words we don’t hear, or refuse to hear. What liberal Enlightenment doesn’t say. What words postmodernist neo-liberals refuse to acknowledge, and the real connection those words have to reality.
Greta Thunberg Remember her? That Swedish girl who caught widespread media attention just three years ago, first in her native Sweden, then on a world stage. “On 20 August 2018, Thunberg, who had just started ninth grade, decided not to attend school until the 2018 Swedish general election on 9 September; her protest began after the heat waves and wildfires during Sweden’s hottest summer in at least 262 years. Her demands were that the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement, and she protested by sitting outside the Riksdag every day for three weeks during school hours with the sign Skolstrejk för klimatet (School strike for climate).”
You probably haven’t noticed recently, but those school strikes have expanded globally and are still happening. On January 25, 2019 she gave the following speech (as quoted in The Guardian):
Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire.
According to the IPCC we are less than 12 years away from not being able to undo our mistakes. In that time, unprecedented changes in all aspects of society need to have taken place, including a reduction of our CO2 emissions by at least 50%.
At places like Davos, people like to tell success stories. But their financial success has come with an unthinkable price tag. And on climate change, we have to acknowledge we have failed. All political movements in their present form have done so, and the media has failed to create broad public awareness.
But Homo sapiens have not yet failed.
Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around. We can still fix this. We still have everything in our own hands. But unless we recognise the overall failures of our current systems, we most probably don’t stand a chance.
We are facing a disaster of unspoken sufferings for enormous amounts of people. And now is not the time for speaking politely or focusing on what we can or cannot say. Now is the time to speak clearly.
Solving the climate crisis is the greatest and most complex challenge that Homo sapiens have ever faced. The main solution, however, is so simple that even a small child can understand it. We have to stop our emissions of greenhouse gases.
Either we do that or we don’t.
You say nothing in life is black or white. But that is a lie. A very dangerous lie. Either we prevent 1.5C of warming or we don’t. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control or we don’t.
Either we choose to go on as a civilisation or we don’t. That is as black or white as it gets. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival.
We all have a choice. We can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations. Or we can continue with our business as usual and fail.
That is up to you and me. . . .
Some say we should not engage in activism. Instead we should leave everything to our politicians and just vote for a change instead. But what do we do when there is no political will? What do we do when the politics needed are nowhere in sight?
Here in Davos – just like everywhere else – everyone is talking about money. It seems money and growth are our only main concerns.
And since the climate crisis has never once been treated as a crisis, people are simply not aware of the full consequences on our everyday life. People are not aware that there is such a thing as a carbon budget, and just how incredibly small that remaining carbon budget is. That needs to change today.
We are at a time in history where everyone with any insight of the climate crisis that threatens our civilisation – and the entire biosphere – must speak out in clear language, no matter how uncomfortable and unprofitable that may be.
We must change almost everything in our current societies. The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility.
Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.
I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.
This is not language designed to obfusticate or obscure. This is not the language of the powerful. It is not even about law. These words were spoken by a young girl – one of the most marginalized groups in the world – TO the powerful, on a global stage where all could hear. They were spoken in English, which is not this girl’s first language. But English is now the language of power so it is the language we must use to be heard. Other girls, other children, also began to speak. They were not heard the way Greta was, but they couldn’t be silenced any more either. Here is Autumn Pelletier, an Anishinaabe girl from the Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada speaking to the United Nations in September, 2019.
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: we can’t eat money or drink oil. . . .
All across these lands, we know somewhere where someone can’t drink the water. Why so many, and why have they gone without for so long?
Watch Autumn Peltier speak at the UN:
Maybe, we need to have more elders and youth together sitting at the decision table when people make decisions about our lands and waters.
“Peltier called for an end to plastic use as one step in restoring a more sustainable world.
Her speech comes a day after huge crowds took to the streets in Canada as part of a global climate strike.
The speech was her second at the UN headquarters, having urged the General Assembly to “warrior up” and take a stand for our planet last year.”
Greta and Autumn were not the only children speaking up clearly and forcefully to world leaders in language they could understand. And these powerful words led to more words of power by more familiar sources of discourse – those same world leaders. Here is what Greta had to say about that just yesterday, a few weeks before those same world leaders will meet in Glasgow for the 26th Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention of 1992 (COP26):
There is no Planet B, there is no planet blah, blah, blah.
“Echoing a speech by COP26 summit host Boris Johnson in April, she continued:”
This is not about some expensive politically correct dream of bunny hugging, or build back better, blah blah blah, green economy, blah blah blah, net zero by 2050, blah blah blah, climate neutral blah blah blah.
This is all we hear from our so-called leaders: words, words that sound great but so far have led to no action, our hopes and dreams drowned in their empty words and promises.
“Ugandan youth activist Vanessa Nakate echoed Ms Thunberg’s exasperation at leaders’ lack of urgency.”
How long must children sleep hungry because their farms have been washed away, because their crops have been dried up because of the extreme weather conditions?
How long are we to watch them die of thirst and gasp for air in the floods? World leaders watch this happen and allow this to continue.
It’s not just greenhouse gases that are the problem, but the “blah, blah, blah” of hot air constantly expelled by world leaders on this and many other topics. It can’t be that they’re not aware. More words of power were published nearly two months ago stating unequivocally that “time’s up”. The first part of the IPCC’s 6th Report was released in early August of this year. This is the discourse of science; the rational language of the Enlightenment itself; the words of Galileo, of Newton, of the spokesmen for reality that is the basis of our humanist liberal civilization. Science and law are in many ways the twin pillars of rational humanism, just as religion and monarch used to be, at least in Europe. The language of this Report (already a compromise picked over by the representatives of nearly 200 governments) is uncharacteristically clear and even forceful – a departure from previous reports:.
A. The Current State of the Climate
A.1 It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred. A.2 The scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole and the present state of many aspects of the climate system are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years. A.3 Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). A.4 Improved knowledge of climate processes, paleoclimate evidence and the response of the climate system to increasing radiative forcing gives a best estimate of equilibrium climate sensitivity of 3°C, with a narrower range compared to AR5.
B. Possible Climate Futures
B.1 Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades. B.2 Many changes in the climate system become larger in direct relation to increasing global warming. They include increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, and heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions, and proportion of intense tropical cyclones, as well as reductions in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost. B.3 Continued global warming is projected to further intensify the global water cycle, including its variability, global monsoon precipitation and the severity of wet and dry events. B.4 Under scenarios with increasing CO2 emissions, the ocean and land carbon sinks are projected to be less effective at slowing the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. B.5 Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.
C. Climate Information for Risk Assessment and Regional Adaptation
C.1 Natural drivers and internal variability will modulate human-caused changes, especially at regional scales and in the near term, with little effect on centennial global warming. These modulations are important to consider in planning for the full range of possible changes. C.2 With further global warming, every region is projected to increasingly experience concurrent and multiple changes in climatic impact-drivers. Changes in several climatic impact-drivers would be more widespread at 2°C compared to 1.5°C global warming and even more widespread and/or pronounced for higher warming levels. C.3 Low-likelihood outcomes, such as ice sheet collapse, abrupt ocean circulation changes, some compound extreme events and warming substantially larger than the assessed very likely range of future warming cannot be ruled out and are part of risk assessment.
D. Limiting Future Climate Change
D.1 From a physical science perspective, limiting human-induced global warming to a specific level requires limiting cumulative CO2 emissions, reaching at least net zero CO2 emissions, along with strong reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions. Strong, rapid and sustained reductions in CH4 (methane) emissions would also limit the warming effect resulting from declining aerosol pollution and would improve air quality. . . .
There can be very little doubt about what any of this means.
This is by Mariam Irene Tazi-Preve, from her essay, “The Perversion of Maternal Gift Giving: Initiating the Matrilinear Motherhood NOW Movement,” published in The Maternal Roots of the Gift Economy, edited by Genevieve Vaughan, 2019.
At the beginning of my research on motherhood—then a young mother in my twenties myself—I realized that there is something deeply wrong with family and motherhood and the way motherhood is presented in the media and in politics. The public discourse is dominated by two subjects. One is about work and family, that is, the economic view; the other is about procreation—birthrates and their political implications. Within both debates, mothers as such do not appear …
‘Having it all’ is supposedly the objective (e.g., Sandberg) for women who want both children and work. In Europe this debate is dominated by the social democratic viewpoint and its concept of freeing women by including them in the workforce and encouraging a career. … This economic discourse is based on the concept of liberal feminism’s understanding of equality (with men) without questioning neoliberalism or its philosophy, rules, and practices.
The other subject on the daily agenda is the reproductive one—abortion legislation and practice, birthrate decline in Europe, and reproductive technologies. All these debates are dealt with in a moral and normative manner. Women’s bodies and procreative ability are objects of discussion, though not debated with women themselves. …
The low birthrates in Europe since the 1980s also brought a new incentive to accelerate population politics. The norm of the two-child family is constantly pursued and propagated in politics, media, and—not the least—by the economic demands of a higher amount of human resources. … We thus realize that motherhood is central to political and economic debates, but not so for the mother herself with her needs, accomplishments, or constant giving. Maternal gift giving is not labelled as such, and is thus nonexistent in political and economic terms. …
My thesis is that the idea of motherhood today—which I call ‘patriarchal motherhood’—is based on the historical matricide, which can be retraced in myth, psychology, science, medicine, law, politics, philosophy, and religion. The mother is still alive—as she is still required as breeder, caretaker, and worker—but the conditions and the constraints in which she is living are the result of a violent transformation. …
A key term here is patriarchy … [it] consists of the Latin term pater (meaning father) and the Greek term arche (which can mean dominance or beginning). It is the father who wants to replace the mother as the origin and creator. That is done in material form, but also by means of symbolism and myths, such as that of Zeus who ‘gives birth’ to his daughter Athena out of his head. What the historically younger version of that myth conceals is that before supposedly giving birth, he had swallowed the goddess Metis who was pregnant with her daughter. Thus, like today, patriarchy depended on absorbing maternal potency to imitate the creation of life. …
During the last decades, Michel Foucault’s postmodern approach and critical theory of modernity was applied to feminist theory and ousted feminist social science approaches. Judith Butler and others developed the theory of gender performativity, denying that there is anything natural in the female body, thus rendering it impossible to talk about women in a collective sense. Furthermore, this concept, widely accepted in academia, has caused a shift toward individualizing the ‘female problem,’ and leaving a systemic view behind. In a ‘gender neutral’ world, the collective understanding of women is vanishing and political activism against structural injustice and violence is rendered impossible.
By favouring an individualistic view and an ‘identity approach,’ ‘womanhood’ is reduced to a rhetorical problem and feminism is losing is transformative power. It may be speculation as to whether this was, in fact, the aim of the theory of gender performativity, but what we do know for sure is that this approach contributes to the patriarchal project of abolishing the mother. …
I am unable to even find a word that can describe the ‘constant weaving a net’ that women provide on a daily basis. It contains the world of emotions in which mother and child are immersed from the day of birth; the sharing of time; the process of cooking and sharing meals; and the female and maternal network that comprises mothers and friends. Maternal culture is embodied by the whole sphere of artisanal and handcraft activity by sharing circles and creating spaces by its acts of production. …
Motherhood was historically split into physical (the womb) and caring functions (which were oppressed, ridiculed, and exploited). … There is an ultimate goal, namely to get rid of the mother altogether. It is her body and her creative potency which has to be eradicated, at which time the male creation puts itself in her place, turning female creativity on its head. Her vividness is to be eradicated, and pregnancy is to be turned from a supposedly uncontrolled, wild, and unpredictable act to a calculable, controlled, and measurable one of modern technology. …
Patriarchal motherhood must be understood as an institution, as the mother’s body, her work, and her creative potency are transformed into a kind of administrative unit. By providing food, housing, and care, the mother and housewife embodies economy in its true sense. This is the shadow economy upon which the official economy is based …
The frame in which maternal life is permitted is the nuclear family, a concept created in the beginning of patriarchal times to impede woman’s free sexuality and pregnancies regardless of the father. Within marriage, procreation became transformed into a controlled and supervised duty. Since then, a non-married mother was considered to be a shame, and the married mother a blessing. The seizure of ‘illegitimate’ children was common throughout Europe until the 1970s. Over time and space, the family was normatively shaped in manifold ways, but its aim of preserving control over the reproductive process never altered.
Also the European/North American idea of motherhood and the nuclear family is an export good to non-western societies. It is communicated or violently imposed by means of religion (missionaries), economics (private property, creation of a new workforce), or political measures (introduction of paternal family name) on non-patriarchal societies—for example, the Khasis in Assam, India, or the Mosuo in South China. …
A characteristic of mothers’ lives in patriarchy is the constant state of being overworked and exhausted, not only when the mother is single, but also when she is in a relationship. Statistics prove time and time again that working mothers are usually subject to an imbalance of childcare and household work. Today paid employment is an economic necessity to maintain the household; the leftist slogan of gaining freedom through employment is and was never true. Female salaries are low and usually considered an add-on to the main income of the male, which is still considerably higher. Female employment was and is seldom self-realization, but simply a matter of survival. Thus mothers gain exhaustion instead of the promised freedom of economic independence. …
In making the burden of the constant care, responsibility, management, and raising of each child the responsibility of an individual, society rids itself of any understanding of common sharing. … Instead of sharing work with others, mothers perform their day-to-day tasks in ‘solitary confinement’ (Rich) according to detailed instructions on carrying out motherhood. … The mother is led to believe that she should not care about or prioritize her own needs, that neglecting herself is normal, and that her notion of constant failure and guilt is natural. The patriarchal mother is also unaware of the norms that make sure that she will never be able to keep up with expectations.
In this sense, the perverted mother shall follow an ideal of a heterosexual relationship that is supposedly the best place for her children and herself. It is presented as ‘natural,’ as children are conceived by a man and a woman. In this ‘natural’ pairing, men and women are kept together in a lifelong unit as a nuclear family. The patriarchal mother is made to believe that a lasting romantic relationship in marriage is the norm. The truth contradicts this all the while: the family is the most dangerous place for women and children because of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, and danger of a violent death. A lifelong loving relationship is the exception while unhappy unions, divorces, and separations are the statistical norm. …
The perverted mother has to be kept under control and under psychological, pedagogical, legal, and medical observance. She has to function within that framework and within the nuclear family. If she fails she is punished socially and legally. In other words, she represents the essential role of the family machine—a kind of family caricature, free of spontaneity and liveliness, an entity of constraints and of duty to society and nation. The world of the creative mother-child culture is belittled, devalued, supposedly old fashioned, unnecessary, and undesirable. These efforts are vilified and reduced to providing fast food, getting the children ready for school in a militaristic manner, organizing and managing them, and turning them and the mother herself into factory inmates. …
We have to become aware of our own colonized mind. We have to stop believing that mothers ought to be in an isolated state. We have to give up the idea that individual motherhood is the norm.
We also have to realize that the nuclear family is the worst place to live in peace and to raise a child. We also have to consider the next generation and not fall into the trap of raising our children with the wrong pictures of the holy and sane family that are portrayed in the media and popular culture. We have to sustain them in finding their autonomous ways to a satisfying life, raising children in community, and having a healthy personal sexual life and romantic relationships that may vary over the course of time.
What should be our model for this new understanding of a freed personal life? In fact, the solution is old and the models are still in place. The answer is matrilinearity, which has been in practice since the beginning of civilization all over the world, and in some (mostly remote) areas of the world still exists, although the attempts to patriarchalize these societies are increasing. …
Starting to live by way of matrilinearity means:
▴ Understanding motherhood as a collective caring principle carried out by many—thus the opposite of an idealized isolated mother image. Motherhood itself, from the time of pregnancy, is to be understood and respected as the embodiment of connectedness.
▴ Family and kinship is defined through the maternal line, not by marriage. Like Russian nesting dolls, the offspring of the maternal body form a linear tradition that can never be denied. Family is about belonging to and sharing with a specific group or clan. When the father tried to make himself symbolically and in reality the head of the family, he turned the logic of matrilineally completely on its head.
▴ The maternal brother is the social father of his sister’s children. He is the support of all the mothers in the family. So the maternal line also includes men, but not husbands or lovers. Sexual relationships are considered a private, very personal matter, and thus not an integral part of the familial community system. Love within the family has a completely different character and importance than the desire for a lover. For the Mosuo, who practice visiting marriages, the idea of building a life on mutual sexual attraction seems completely incomprehensible and irresponsible.
▴ Housing in a close vicinity is an important factor for the interdependence of the community and family. By forming a net of relationships, mutual support can help children grow up safely in an enduring community.
▴ Contrary to the Western concept of ego, which can only be developed by matricide, there is no need of a violent act in order to be an independent person. The idea of the ‘mature ego’ is usually equated with an attitude in which the objective reality is thought of as being radically separated from the subject. Instead of ‘cutting the cord’ as is demanded in European and North American cultures (or else risk the accusation of having failed in ‘adult life’ if you return to your parents’ house), adult children and grandchildren in matrilinear families are still connected to their maternal home by a movement of back and forth, continually leaving and returning.
“The category of sex belongs to a system of compulsory heterosexuality that clearly operates through a system of compulsory reproduction. . . . ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ exist only within the heterosexual matrix; indeed, they are the naturalized terms that keep that matrix concealed, and, hence, protected from a radical critique.” (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, p.150).
This conclusion comes at the end of a chapter in which Butler explores the views of French feminist Julia Kristeva, and her favourite philosopher, Michel Foucault. She paraphrases his position (from Volume I of the History of Sexuality) as follows:
“For Foucault, the body is not ‘sexed’ in any significant sense prior to its determination within a discourse through which it becomes invested with an ‘idea’ of natural or essential sex. The body gains meaning within discourse only in the context of power relations. Sexuality is an historically specific organization of power, discourse, bodies, and affectivity. As such, sexuality is understood by Foucault to produce ‘sex’ as an artificial concept which effectively extends and disguises the power relations responsible for its genesis.” (pp.124-125)
The chapter concludes with what Butler describes as an “unscientific postscript” in which she uses the science of biological sex to undercut or question the binary nature of sex, reproduction, and the dominance of the “principle of masculine activity” in the role of genes encoded on human chromosomes, specifically the Y chromosome.
The “system of sex” being described here is in fact the “idea of sex”(per Foucault) that should be more accurately labelled as gender. “Sex” is falsely portrayed by both Butler and Foucault as nothing more than discursive within structures of power. The scientific literature Butler refers to is outdated and incomplete – perhaps not surprising in a book first published in 1990. In the Preface to the 1999 edition of Gender Trouble Butler could have corrected her claims, but she did not. Chromosomal irregularities in intersexuality, or Disorders of Sexual Development that she cites, have been well-studied and considerably updated. Her claims that up to 10% of the human population may be effected by unusual chromosomal or genetic variations is simply not true. Not even Anne Fausto-Sterling, whom she cites, makes such a claim. We now know that intersex conditions effect about 0.015% of humans and these variations are also binary.
Whatever Foucault might’ve been talking about, Butler is not discussing sex. Butler consistently confuses sex and sexuality with gender, which does indeed “extend and disguise the power relations responsible for its genesis” – ie. Patriarchy.
Biological sex as it appears and develops in humans and other species, is actually gender neutral. It has existed in binary form for billions of years. Humans, other mammals, birds, fish, most other vertebrates, octopuses and most other marine creatures, insects, plants and all other sexually reproducing species are either female or male. Nature does not provide a third option. Gender may or may not exist within non-human species. Where language and culture exist, especially in social species, it might be more common than we think. But, other than possible secondary sex characteristics such as nurturing in females and competitiveness in males, it is not innate or biologically determined.
The “trouble” within human reproduction and sexuality is indeed “gender”, consisting of those social, cultural and psychological structures that are attached to sex, and the power structures gender produces and enforces on the basis of sex. Heterosexuality is both sexed as a primary determinate of reproduction and human development, and gendered as significant, if not compulsory, in most human societies. Reproduction is only one aspect of sexuality however. Controls on reproduction through non-heterosexualities may be both biological and cultural, social or psychological.
Butler also quotes a study by Eva M. Eicher and Linda L. Washburn in which the primacy of the Y chromosome in the determination of sex is frequently over-emphasized in the literature. It’s clear that Butler never got past the introduction. In the very next paragraph of their article Eicher and Washburn state simply and clearly “A developing mammalian embryo has the somatic potential to become either female or male.” (“Genetic Control of Primary Sex Determination in Mice”, Annual Review of Genetics, 1986, p.329). This is so regardless of the gendered biases of male cellular biologists as to the activity or passivity of genetic or chromosomal material in the development of testes and ovaries.
Butler’s overall agenda was to challenge what she perceived as the “heteronormativity” of First Wave feminism. Instead she somewhat accidentally created a theoretical discourse about something called “gender identity” detached from sex and sexuality. Whatever may have been the situation in 1990 when Gender Trouble was written, this focus on heterosexuality has shifted dramatically since then, just as a supposed focus on whiteness or Euroamerican agendas in feminism has broadened.
Butler forces us, through what became queer theory (which is itself overwhelmingly white and Euroamerican), to abandon “women” as a meaningful category within discourses of power to an over-extended and exaggerated interpretation of gender identity disconnected from biological sex.
Gender itself is one enormous problem. It’s various forms have effectively crippled one half of humanity and severely damaged the other half through the punitive and toxic normalization of”femininity” and “masculinity” as structured by power. It has also been used to police “compulsory heteronormativity” through the stigmatization of other sexualities – a process that continues with “transgenderism” as a form of homophobic conversion “therapy”. Now, gender’s theoretical and pop-cultural disconnection from embodied sex and sexualities, and it’s abandonment of women and girls, is yet another huge problem. Instead of looking clearly at gender within Patriarchy with the intent of dismantling it, Butler’s theorizing simply reinforces male dominance by disguising the Patriarchal matrix behind a veil of confusion, performance, and obscurantist language. This is a clear representation of how the Master’s tools cannot dismantle the house that the Master has built (to paraphrase Audrey Lorde).
Butler is immensely frustrating. She gets some things right and other things so horribly wrong. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, here is a sampler. I’ve included my own views in square brackets. Where I agree I put [✓].
“Gender is an assignment that does not just happen once: it is ongoing. We are assigned a sex at birth [no we are not – our sex is observed at birth or long before] and then a slew of expectations follow which continue to “assign” gender to us. The powers that do that are part of an apparatus of gender that assigns and reassigns norms to bodies, organises them socially, but also animates them in directions contrary to those norms. [✓]
Perhaps we should think of gender as something that is imposed at birth, through sex assignment [observation of sex from soon after conception] and all the cultural assumptions that usually go along with that [which can include death, such as in sex selective abortions]. Yet gender is also what is made along the way – we can take over the power of assignment, make it into self-assignment [✓], which can include sex reassignment at a legal and medical level. [Except no actual literal change in sex is physically possible – only the performance, appearance or expression of gender can change].”
“So what does that [identity politics] mean for the left? If we base our viewpoints only on particular identities, I am not sure we can grasp the complexity of our social and economic worlds or build the kind of analysis or alliance needed to realise ideals of radical justice, equality and freedom. [✓] At the same time, marking identity is a way of making clear how coalitions must change to be more responsive to interlinked oppressions [not sure I agree that gender identity performs any useful role in politics at all].”
“The Terfs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) and the so-called gender critical writers [repeating offensive language and demeaning the intelligence and integrity of your opponents is a fool’s game – and Butler should know better] have also rejected the important work in feminist philosophy of science showing how culture and nature interact (such as Karen Barad, Donna Haraway, EM Hammonds or Anne Fausto-Sterling) in favor of a regressive and spurious form of biological essentialism [this is false – none of the writers she cites would reject scientific inquiry out of hand, and no one is denying that culture and nature interact]. So they will not be part of the coalition that seeks to fight the anti-gender movement. The anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times. So the Terfs will not be part of the contemporary struggle against fascism [notice the logical fallacy here – she equates the “anti-gender movement” with fascism, without any evidence of what this means, thus relegating anyone who won’t join “the struggle” as fascists – this is not only false logic, it also invites a twisted narrative of what revolutionary struggle actually means from a Marxist perspective. Again, Butler the philosopher should fucking well know better], one that requires a coalition guided by struggles against racism, nationalism, xenophobia and carceral violence, one that is mindful of the high rates of femicide throughout the world, which include high rates of attacks on trans and genderqueer people [again, notice the misuse of language marginalizing femicide – the murder of women – and replacing women with “trans and genderqueer” people, without once defining who those people are].
She begins this interview by saying that her original purpose in writing “Gender Trouble” was to decentre heterosexuality within feminism. What she has done is to decentre women from left-wing discourse altogether, and replace it with a “gender” theory with no clear parameters or substance. She equates all gender with performance or repetition of social rituals as an operation of power – while seeming to ignore or dismiss the real power of violence inflicted on human bodies, both female and male. This is a direct inheritance from Foucault. She conflates gender and sex repeatedly, while appearing to, at times, separate them. She also conflates biological reality with “biological essentialism” and situates all discussions of sex onto a right wing agenda – surrendering women’s rights to a conservative political agenda, and rendering feminism as an unwinnable struggle. Her confusion, and her lack of linguistic clarity (which is apparent even in a media interview designed for the “lay”, ie ignorant, reader) is quite deliberate.
I’m rereading some of the gender theory literature (including Butler) for my own research. In its heyday (the 1990s) it was exciting and groundbreaking stuff. It has now been utterly corrupted and degraded into mindless “identity politics” through the very discourses of power it was originally designed to critique. Most critics of critical theory also have no clue what they’re talking about. It’s all performative nattering for attention and money. None of this has aged well.
A new development in this story. Passages from the Butler interview were pulled after complaints that the references to TERFs were inappropriate. The UK editorial team demanded the redactions from the US edition of the Guardian and an entire series on gender has-been pulled. Well done team!! See https://eoinhiggins.substack.com/p/guardian-pulls-judith-butlers-comments.
A meme I discovered on Facebook, and reposted, resonated with a number of commentators. The author of the meme is indicated only as “Business Jump”, whoever that might be.
It encapsulates something I’ve been thinking about for a long time in relation to a lot of seemingly unrelated issues. What do we mean by “women’s rights”? What or who is feminism about? What have I and many other feminists over the last 50 years, or even 250 years, actually achieved? How does this relate to colonialism, Indigenous rights and our relationship to the Earth? To capitalism, economic development, technology, law, work, sex, sexuality, or planetary issues like climate change and the collapse of biodiversity making liveable conditions disappear for all living species, not just humans?
In response to one comment on the posted meme, I replied: “. . . the meme expresses a huge feminist failure, especially in the US, but replicated elsewhere. We (second wave feminists) won equality rights by accepting a male model as the standard we have to measure up to in order to work and get paid outside the home with some degree of fairness. But we sacrificed [ourselves as] mothers and children in the process. And did not actually achieve equality. The biggest revolution in human history – the struggle for women’s rights – is now being taken over by a patriarchal counter-revolution that will kill us all. This keeps me awake at night.”
The thoughts expressed in the meme and in my reply are not particularly original. The observation that we’re in the middle of a “patriarchal counter-revolution” has divided feminists, and the ongoing struggle for the rights of women and girls globally, to the point where there seems to be little or no common ground. The nexus at which the conflicts intersect involve transgender issues, sexual “liberation”, sexuality, sex work (prostitution), pornography, reproductive choices (including surrogacy) and children’s rights. The divide appears to be generational. Many, not all, younger feminists seem to have embraced a gendered approach to women’s rights deeply influenced by Critical Queer Theory, while older feminists (like myself who were part of the Second Wave) resist this theoretical approach as inconsistent with what we see as the core of women’s disempowerment – sex-based discrimination. This means discrimination on the basis of our biological sex (female) by or on behalf of men (adult males) in order to perpetuate men’s hold on power. This gendered system of patriarchy is particularly directed at women’s roles in sex, reproduction, childrearing, and caregiving more generally. Gender has been very closely tied to biological sex for millennia – perhaps for as long as humans have existed as a species – as either masculine (the proper way to be male) or feminine (the proper way to be female), or an indeterminate androgynous status (either homosexual or transgender, or both) in which biological sex is still recognized as binary, but diversity in gender roles is both permitted and restricted. I hope (with a lot of hesitation) that all feminists can agree that gender is the means by which sex-based discrimination and male oppression are normalized and enforced in societies globally. But the way in which “gender” is currently being defined and used leads me to think that there is more going on.
A second deep divide in feminist thinking which may again point to a failure within feminism, regardless of arguments over sex and gender, revolves around racial and cultural differences. These are indeed important in how gender and sex discrimination are reflected within a particular society, or in how gender is enforced within racial, cultural, ethnic, religious, sexual, or other groups outside of a normative white, male, middle-class, heterosexual model. But where and how these cultural differences impact women, or are reflected in feminist theory, depends very much on where you stand in relation to women’s rights. Although many women of colour participated in Second Wave feminism, their specific needs and rights were not necessarily addressed in what became a form of “mainstream feminism” adopted in most countries in Northwestern Europe and their former white settler colonies around the world. This model was promoted and adopted internationally, and deeply affected feminist movements outside of Europe. This in turn led many women who were not part of the dominant culture in Western countries, or who lived in countries that were not predominantly white, to question and often reject so-called “Western feminism” that had become the standard model. However, this “mainstream” feminist model was also extremely important in creating options for oppressed women around the world.
The “mainstream feminism” that won battles for women’s rights in the West seems to many observers to have overwhelmingly favoured white middle-class heterosexual women. The diversity that existed within second wave feminism seemed to slip away as the decades since 1960 passed, and often involved ignoring or neglecting strands of feminist thinking that were particularly challenging to an increasingly neo-liberal economic order and the social conservativism that developed from 1980 onwards. These strands of diversity within feminism, including Marxist/socialist and radical feminism, as well as what might be called eco-feminism, and feminist “herstories” of matriarchal societies predating patriarchy, did not become part of the “mainstream”. But they retained a loyal following which has grown in the last few years as “mainstream” liberal feminism has failed to address stubbornly persistent problems negatively effecting women and children.
The mainstreaming and consequent erasure of feminist history still haunts our ability to discuss divisions among feminists, or to centre the rights of women and girls within oppressively male-dominated agendas. The development of “intersectional” feminism in the US in the late 1980’s shifted some attention towards Black women in particular. It was a partially successful attempt to open up legal definitions of both sex and racial discrimination to include women who were falling through the cracks. Unfortunately, this attempt at legal inclusion has been captured by identity politics and postmodernist agendas to “include” a kaleidoscopic range of approved groups. White, middle-class, heterosexual women – the “Karens” of more social media memes with real-life consequences – seem to have been written out of feminism altogether. White women are now described as the oppressor, while men seem to have disappeared from, or appropriated, feminist discourse altogether. The #MeToo movement seems to have disappeared as quickly as it arose. This “mainstreaming” or “malestreaming” of Western feminism did benefit some of those women who were already contingently protected within parasitic relationships with powerful men (fathers, husbands, brothers, sons) = that is within Patriarchy. Most of those relationships were between white women and white men given the white supremist history of most Western societies . These women were able to expand their parasitic relationships within Patriarchy to include other powerful men in addition to family relationships (employers, colleagues, executives, managers, politicians, union officials, administrators). White women, heterosexual or not, and within all social classes, are still oppressed. Our position within Patriarchy is still contingent on male approval and protection. We can act as oppressors too, but only within the confines of our own problematic relationship to men. For most women, the gains we might have made within “mainstream” or “malestream” feminism have come at a heavy cost, one of which is to divide women against each other, and to centre a male model of humanness on women.
The bias within “mainstream” feminism also marginalizes poor women, women from working class backgrounds, and conservative women. The benefits of feminism seem to favour not only white women, but also middle-class women who have access to higher education. The class bias also exists within other forms of Western feminism. Although many Radical and Marxist feminists resist this accusation of bias, women are still often described as a class similar to an oppressed proletariat, or as a monolithic group with little regard for the very real problems dividing women. Women are not a class, although many are poor, or work under oppressive conditions. Women are not an identity, or collection of identities, but we do express the full range of human differences. Issues of class are no longer much discussed within any leftwing movement in Western countries, unfortunately, which gives rise to a whole range of difficult problems within feminism and within other progressive movements more generally. Indigenous women have a difficult time making their voices heard within any of these debates, leading many to reject feminism altogether as colonial thinking. They see problems of inequality and discrimination against women as something introduced by colonialism. They look to their own traditions of gender – many of which are matriarchal or matrilineal – to find solutions to the terrible problems so many Indigenous women face. Conservative women have been utterly marginalized within any strand of feminism. This is mostly a result of Western feminism attaching itself, or coming out of, the Left. This seems to be yet another form of parasitism. What do we do if the Left abandons us? Many feminists no longer feel they have a home within leftwing progressive movements because of what they see as male domination and capture of feminist agendas, and of feminists. Unless feminism can find some point of connection with all women, it cannot make any legitimate claims to universality. Although many conservative women have in fact benefited from “mainstream” feminism, they do not connect with many fundamental issues that most streams of feminism embrace. The most prominent among these is abortion.
Most feminists up until recently, whether “mainstream” or not, have seen gender as a social construct, the primary tool of Patriarchy in the subjugation of women that needs to be resisted or eliminated. Radical and Marxist feminists have attempted to recognize issues of race, culture and class within their own analyses much more so than more “liberal” or “mainstream” forms of feminism. However, all these overlapping theoretical approaches towards women’s subjugation tend to universalize women’s experience and approaches to that experience, in a way that many non-white women reject. Classical Liberalism and neo-liberalism (the primary theoretical bases of “mainstream” or Western feminism), Marxism, and socialism all tend to universalize human experience, usually based on a European male model, that is seen by both women and men outside Europe, or Indigenous peoples within European settler societies, as racist, and as a major aspect of colonization. Many radical feminists also tend to universalize human experience, based on a European model of male oppression, and a European model of female subjugation. I know many radical feminists will object strenuously to this as very unfair. Although women generally have many issues in common (reproductive health, control over fertility, maternal health, child rearing, caregiving, male violence against women, economic and political discrimination, issues specific to girls and elderly women), it is necessary not to universalize women’s experiences. The commonalities exist within very significant differences. The tendency to universalize women’s experience has the associated tendency of obscuring those differences, many of which are directly related to colonization, capitalist exploitation, and global violence inflicted by rich countries on the poor everywhere (women, children and men). Solidarity within class, racial or anti-colonial struggles often dismiss feminist approaches as a distraction at best, or a means of division and conquest at worst. This is a major problem for any feminist analysis.
The commonalities among women, in my view, are not based on class or gender. Women are neither. What we have in common as women is based on two things: 1) the fundamental biological reproductive distinction that divides the human species (like all other mammals) into male and female, and; 2) the ancient ongoing history of how those sexual differences are managed and controlled by human societies. Women are the female half of the human species – the half that bears, gives birth to, feeds, and largely cares for other humans – children, men, the sick and the elderly. We are not a subset of any definition of humanity in which the male model determines who is or is not human. That is how Patriarchy works. We are the half from which everything else comes.
This is true whether any woman has children or not, or is capable of having children. We are, first of all, sexed by our reproductive potential through genetics, chromosomes, hormones, pre-natal development in the womb (and only women have wombs), and the post-natal development of our physical bodies throughout our lives from birth to death. This sexual and reproductive potential cannot be altered. But, secondly, we are also socially constructed or gendered as mothers or “birthers”, and “caregivers”, regardless of how much choice we may or may not have had in actually giving birth to or caring for anyone.
I myself chose not to have children. But that did not exempt me from membership in the half of humanity largely responsible for creating and maintaining life. For caring. This is why a meme that says “we expect women to work like they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work” is so deeply wrong on so many levels. It embeds social expectations of “women”, “work”, “having or not having children”, and “raising children” in a network of gendered expectations and biological sex-differences, neither of which are acknowledged. It makes it easy to conflate sex and gender, while also providing a neo-liberal “mainstream” model for disengaging them. “Women” to succeed at “work” have to gender ourselves as “men”. So gender can be, has to be, disengaged from sex in order for women to be “equal” outside their roles as mothers and caregivers. But it just doesn’t work – not even for those of us who choose not to have children, or are unable to do so. It doesn’t even really work for the privileged few who can hire mostly women of colour to do their birthing (surrogacy) and caregiving for them. Even the most privileged of women must still always put the needs of others, in particular the men in their lives, ahead of their own, because that is our role. So, although “mainstream”, “malestream” liberal feminism tried to make it possible to disengage gender from biological sex, it never really succeeds.
This confusion over sex and gender is not just a problem for women. It is also a very serious social problem in most industrial societies. The vast majority of people, women and men, understand that sex discrimination is based on biological sex and reproductive roles, and that gender is the form in which creating, maintaining and enforcing that discrimination is policed. Many women simply accept this as a fact of life in social contexts that make questioning or rebellion impossible. Or they embrace both sexual differences and patriarchal gender roles as “natural”, again confusing the sexual and reproductive roles, which are natural, from the gendered part, which is not. But many women do resist being seen as subordinate to men, identifying gender as the problem. Unfortunately, they may also conflate this with sex, thinking that if they can only change their gender identity or expression they can somehow also change their sex. So they identify as “non-binary”, which may be possible in a gendered sense, but is impossible as far as sex is concerned. Many girls are now turning to puberty blockers, cross-sex hormone treatments and surgeries to try and change their physical sex from female to male. Presenting with a male appearance is possible, but actually becoming male is not.
Most men seem to be uninterested in overturning a system that works for their benefit. And then of course, there are the children. Someone has to give birth to them, someone has to care for them, someone has to care for everyone. Some women work actively in support of gender distinctions based on their own cultural, religious or ideological understandings of the roles of women and men in their societies. This can range from very conservative women within rigidly patriarchal religions, to women actively involved in decriminalizing sex work, pornography, surrogacy, and who promote this as a combination of sexual liberation and the ultimate goal of equality in the workplace. Some men do more than simply accept the benefits of Patriarchy. Many are also actively involved in maintaining or strengthening traditional gender norms, whatever those might be. This includes those who are also part of extremely conservative religious communities. But, it also includes men who have adopted the idea that they can actually change their gender/sex from male to female by identifying themselves within stereotypical gender roles of the opposite gender/sex. This assumes that gender and sex are the same, or interchangeable, or that gender “trumps” sex within a multitude of identities that in fact consist of the only two these men can see – masculine and feminine genders in the most traditional and stereotypical of senses. It seems astonishingly radical, but it hides a very conservative neo-liberal agenda that fits well within our meme. Transwomen fit the meme’s definition of “woman” perfectly. They don’t have to pretend they don’t have children. They remain men, even where they adopt the full panoply of hormones and surgeries, stereotypical feminine appearance and behaviour. Men who identify as women, but don’t actually transition, are an even more perfect fit. They’re still men, but can be classified as members of the “caring” sex/gender so are therefore rendered “safe”. Of course they would never harm anyone – they’re the most marginalized, most discriminated against, least threatening type of woman there could possibly be! The stereotypical gender roles pose no threat to patriarchy, once men and women can be persuaded to believe that gender can replace sex, while at the same time hiding the reality that this is not possible.
Gender changes over time and is very different within different cultural, racial or social contexts. Sex can only change by way of physical causes working within biology – such as natural or sexual selection which might affect genetic inheritance. This might include random mutations, or environmental influences on sexual development within the womb which might cause more male fetuses to develop, for example. Gender as a social construct can also influence the proportion of females to males within different human populations, not by changing sex, but by eliminating girls. Sex selective abortions, female infanticide, neglect or abandonment of baby girls, less access to food, or poorer health care are some examples.
The divisions within “mainstream” feminism between heterosexual women and the LGB community has also led to divisions that still haunt us. Lesbians were forced out of “mainstream” feminism very early on by activists such as Betty Friedan who feared the “lavender peril”. Although lesbian feminists lobbied hard to remain part of the broader movement, many chose separatism and solidarity amongst themselves, and with gay men. By the turn of the 21st century some of these wounds had healed as feminists across the board joined in the fight to eliminate discrimination against the LGB community. Much of this was in reaction to the plague of HIV/AIDS that hit gay men in the Western world particularly hard. Feminists working on women’s rights in the international sphere could see that HIV/AIDS was also a disease that was killing women and children around the world. An effective cure, and the ultimate goal of creating a vaccine, was being impeded by the intense hostility towards gay men, especially within the Reagan administration and conservative circles in the US and elsewhere where much of this medical research was being conducted. This hostility has been partially driven underground in the West, but is still a major human rights issue internationally. The battle for gay rights culminated in the elimination of laws that discriminated against same-sex attraction in most Western democracies, particularly in marriage, family relations, and childcare. This was a major human rights victory that has not yet been replicated internationally. Unfortunately, the success of the LGB rights movement in some countries opened the door to transgender rights activists who have transformed both the LGBTQ communities, and women’s rights. Some countries which outlaw homosexuality (such as Iran) have actually embraced transgender as an acceptable alternative, especially for men. Transitioning medical and surgical treatment is now paid for by the Iranian state, while homosexuality still results in public hangings. It has become the new “conversion therapy” for many homophobic conservative groups around the world.
The opening up of sexuality as a legitimate expression of diversity and individual identity also unsettled the relationship between gender and biological sex. Feminists, in particular radical feminists, had been challenging this relationship for years, not as just as an expression of personal gender identity that could be altered at will (although personal choice in dress and lifestyle was definitely part of this), but as the practical enforcement mechanism of female domination – of Patriarchy. But “mainstream” feminism, particularly in the US, had already silenced much of this debate by putting personal individual success in a “malestream” world ahead of women’s rights as a human rights issue effecting one-half of the human species. Women had already been relegated to a class. From about 2015 onwards we have since been further relegated to an “identity” that can now include men. Many younger women and men see gender and sexuality as matters of personal choice, as fluid or capable of change – undermining the idea that sexuality at least is not a choice. An alternative theory maintains that gender is, like sexuality, not confined by sex. Some babies are born who look like girls, and are assigned the sex/gender of female at birth, but really they are boys. And vice versa. Thus children as young as two or three can express their “true” sex/gender.
Gender, sexual distinctions, and sexuality are intimately linked in a discourse, identified within Critical Queer Theory, that does not have to be binary or biologically determined. In fact the discourse of binary distinctions or “bioessentialism” needs to be challenged or transgressed in order to end the patriarchal system of white “cis-heteronormativity” that is oppressing all (non-white, non-“cis”, non-heterosexual) people everywhere. This phrase encapsulates the hegemonic language of white supremist patriarchy determining systemic racism, colonialism, sexism, masculine and feminine gender roles, heterosexuality and homosexuality. This “cis” (gender in alignment with birth sex), “hetero” (opposite sex attracted) “normativity” (ingrained and enforced societal perception of what is “normal” or acceptable) is where everyone’s oppression lies. Much of contemporary “mainstream”, liberal and neo-liberal feminism has adopted a postmodern critique of discourse as the foundation for challenging social problems surrounding sex, gender, race, and sexuality. This new feminist critique is heavily indebted to Queer Critical Theory, to the poststructuralist movements in mid-century French theory, to post-colonial studies, to American libertarianism and American Race Critical Theory. It has led to a rejection of “privileged” white feminism within a classical liberal, Marxist, socialist or radical tradition.
I would suggest that this is a serious problem.
I haven’t made it to the “this will kill us all” part – climate change, environmental destruction and a few other strange places to find an epiphany from a feminist meme. Part II will be coming shortly.
“The term ‘non-binary’ is used by people who don’t identify as either male ♂️ or female ♀️, and don’t want to be restricted by traditional binary notions of gender.” From #Openly on Twitter 🌈
Ok. I get it. I myself, and many many people, especially girls and women, do not “want to be restricted by traditional binary notions of gender”. Binary notions of gender are how patriarchy, and its various historical and contemporary manifestations, has entrenched itself. It’s how women and men are indoctrinated into their social roles as masculine and feminine. Gender roles can also be the basis of matriarchal societies centered on mothers and grandmothers. They don’t have to be androcentric. There are cultures and societies which are not patriarchal or androcentric. Most of them, however, have been colonized into isolation and submission to patriarchal outsiders over hundreds or even thousands of years, in different places and in different ways. So what is gender?
~Human males, “boys and men”, are socialized or “masculinized” to be dominant over women (meaning all human males, within other male-dominated boundaries of human difference such as age, class, status, race, etc.). Human females, “girls and women”, are socialized or “feminized” to be submissive to men (this includes all women, who are also subject to other male-dominated social boundaries of class, status, caste or race, etc.). Gender can then be equated to where you fit on the “dominance-submission spectrum”. Homosexuality or bisexuality can be challenging to gender roles, but don’t have to be.
Gender roles were originally always based on sexual differences between males and females – that’s the whole point about gender – to provide a socially recognized way of controlling heterosexuality and reproduction. Sex itself, as a biological reality, has no “gender”. It is an entirely neutral natural condition of our existence as a sexually reproducing species. Some gender roles can be androgynous or even transgender working against the binary nature of sex. But biological sex, the foundation of gender, is immutably binary upon which our survival and evolution as a species depends. Intersex is not an exception to this, but rather is a naturally occurring chromosomal anomaly within a binary sexual system of biological reproduction. Sex and gender are usually correlated, but they are not the same thing. Gender, as a human way of narrating sex differences, can be detached from sex. There can be a “gender spectrum”. But a sex spectrum does not exist.~
Rejecting, resisting, reforming or getting rid of patriarchal or “traditional gender roles” is what feminism is supposed to be about.
It is not about detaching us from physical reality, but rather liberating us from destructive social norms.
Challenging patriarchy is also central to other forms of human rights and anti-discrimination work including that based on sexuality, class, caste, status, race, ethnicity, religion, age, nationalism, etc. That’s what being “gender critical” is. It used to be the core of all forms of feminism, going back centuries. Unfortunately, that no longer seems to be the case. Challenging traditional gender roles is what distinguishes radical or GC feminists from rightwing conservatives. Alliances between these two groups is complicated and, in my view, very problematic.
I would argue that resisting patriarchy, including traditional gender roles based on male dominance and female submission, is one of the fundamentals of all human rights work. This work is now being pried loose from human rights, and especially women’s rights and the original aims of LGB rights, as the “T” has come to dominate all other progressive political movements. Even Black Lives Matter is caving in.
Radical feminists are adamantly opposed to the whole concept of gender stereotypes, and would like to abolish “gender”altogether as inherently demeaning to the female sex. I myself don’t think this is possible as I think gender predates and precedes patriarchy, but certainly the worst aspects of binary gender roles that are deeply connected to sex discrimination in our contemporary societies could be eliminated.
But there’s the thing. Traditional and restrictive binary gender roles are not just individual choices. They aren’t just what your individual personality might be. They are nobody’s “true self”. Gender is not just a performance or expression or identity. Gender is what we, AS A SOCIETY, call the roles, personalities, expression, appearance, expectations and behaviours we ascribe to women and men because of their sex. Gender isn’t just something that was randomly invented by marketing departments and advertising agencies (although it has certainly been exploited and exaggerated by them). Gender is how sexual differences between males and females are imagined within any human society. And in most human societies as they currently exist, gender is the most important way in which sex differences are regulated and controlled. Patriarchy reduces women to their sexual, reproductive and caregiving body parts in the service of male agendas. You cannot “identify as a woman”. Femaleness, as a physical and an historical social reality, is not an identity or an individual choice. Neither is maleness.
To be “non-binary” recognizes that we all live in a binary system, and that you yourself would like to reject this. That you don’t want to choose between one set of gender roles or another. So you choose a kind of androgynous identity to separate yourself from the ridiculous Barbie vs. GI Joe gender industry. That’s commendable, except for two big problems.
First, it won’t work. You cannot make the binary gender system called patriarchy disappear by simply telling yourself you’re no longer a part of it. The system is much bigger than any individual trying to be recognized as a person – not just as a girl or a boy. Individualism is part of the neo-liberal philosophy that underlies modern capitalism, especially in the US, that tries to convince us that everything is about individual choices. It is used successfully by corporations convincing us that the problems they create are really about what individual consumers do or don’t do. Our choices. Our fault. Climate change becomes about individuals buying electric cars or turning down the thermostat or “offsetting” carbon emissions from flying, instead of corporate responsibility by the fossil fuel industry (Exxon spent years successfully selling this along with climate change denial). Plastic pollution can be solved by individuals recycling plastic containers, or not buying them in the first place. It’s never about billion dollar industries making and marketing products made out of or packaged in plastic (another fossil fuel product by the way). Smoking? Just quit, or better yet, chew our anti-smoking product, or wear our anti-smoking patch! Substance abuse? “Just say no”. PTSD or other forms of trauma or mental illness? Let’s not look at a society run by corporate capitalist psychopaths who are killing, traumatizing and driving us mad. Individual therapy or more drugs is the answer. Born in the wrong body? Hormones and cosmetic surgery. Your choice. Our marketing opportunity. But all of this is a lie. Our choices are important, but only if they are made collectively and those who are really responsible (corporate and individual) are held accountable.
Declaring yourself to be non-binary can be the first step on the road to joining with others to change the system on a society-wide level. In which case, welcome to the fight! It can also be a positive individual step that offers girls, boys and young adults time to sort out who they are as adult human beings of either sex, or sexuality. But individual choices about presentation or appearance will not eliminate patriarchy, just as opting out of capitalism will not get rid of the oil industry, or the tobacco industry, or drugs, or the exploitation of women, men, and children, or the destruction of our natural environment. This is about something much bigger than pronouns or a haircut or new clothes or what your latest selfie looks like on Instagram.
The second major problem is, “non-binary” is the gateway for many people into the transgender industry, and its accompanying ideology, mostly consisting of a hodgepodge of critical queer theories and neo-liberal feminism. Climate change, pollution, substance abuse, sexual exploitation, violence and poverty are all real problems in the real world. Feeling as if you were born as the wrong sex “in the wrong body” is a form of mental illness – its delusional – similar to anorexic girls who think they’re too fat, or men who think beating up the women in their lives makes them strong. Indeed, these pathologies are related. Gender dysphoria, autogynophilia, addictions to pornography, sexually demeaning “liberation” for attention or cash, body disassociation, androgynous “non-binariness”, male violence fueled by hyper-masculinity, or the glorification of feminine objectification are not forms of rebellion either for or against gender. Quite the opposite. They are the delusions of sick individuals in a sick society bound by restrictive gender roles, whether attached to sexual difference, or detached and transed into fantasies borrowed from pornography or modern entertainment platforms such as gaming. Avatars and robots are fantasies or corporate products – they are not replacements for real humans in the real world. And women are not reducible to a soothing voice in a box, or a surrogate, or a “sex worker”, or an image in a man’s head, or even to working hands, a caring heart, or a vagina, a cervix, a uterus, ovaries, breasts, that “collection of lucrative holes” many men see us as.
Gender dysphoria might be treatable by actual physical transformation through puberty blockers, or hormone therapies, or cosmetic surgeries (just as some of these products were originally used to castrate sexual offenders) but the bodily changes will never be more than superficial and will not change your sex. Those physical changes are also expensive, dangerous, debilitating forms of bodily mutilation that will turn you into a permanent prisoner of the medical side of the transgender industry. The ideology is pure corporate capitalism. It is a lie, conflating gender with sex. It is destroying people’s lives, especially those of children and young people, and the “widows” of men or women reinventing themselves to match an image of gender they have in their heads – the performance of talented actors on Oprah, and YouTube influencers, notwithstanding.
As for the trans individuals who do not make any physical changes to their bodies, nor plan to, but simply claim to be the opposite sex manifested by cross-dressing and superficial “gender bending”, you are liars or fools. Many of you are predatory men’s rights activists. And feminists who call themselves transgender allies, you are handmaids to patriarchy, not feminists.
In any attempt to understand Indigenous approaches to environmental issues, it is necessary to explore a very different world viewfrom that of most environmentalists, including myself. It means letting go, for awhile at least, of one’s preconceptions about land, air, water, energy, technology, and civilization, and instead put one’s self into a world in which all humans who have ever lived used to be born into, lived in, and understood, as a world of community and relationships among all living things. This is a world which has gradually become so deeply colonized by patriarchal urban civilizations from ancient Egypt, China and Europe to America, that this older world has become hard to find. But it is not impossible – the “Peoples of the Earth” never disappeared. But it’s a world our modern eyes can hardly see, and our current mental maps can barely comprehend. The closest I have found to this understanding within Eurocentric environmental philosophies are some of the eco-feminist perspectives outlined in Part II (which tend to get ignored in “mainstream”environmental thinking), and something called “Deep Green” vs. “Bright Green” environmentalism:
Although more and more people agree that we must undertake massive changes to address the environmental crises, there is disagreement as to what approach to take. At the risk of oversimplification, most solutions fall into one of two camps. We call them “Bright Green” and “Deep Green.” Bright Green solutions rely on government legislation, technological innovations and structural adjustments. Examples include massive investments in energy efficiency, developing cleaner energy sources, reducing car dependence, and converting to local and organic agriculture. Bright Green tends to emphasize the positive, and eschew anger and fear as counter-productive. Deep Green solutions are based on the belief that technological innovations, no matter how well intentioned, inevitably lead to accelerated resource depletion and more pollution. It views the reliance on technology to address the crises as akin to putting out a fire with gasoline. The Deep Green is more likely to look at pre-industrial and pre-civilization ways of living as solutions to the crises. In fact, many believe that the quicker we dismantle the apparatus of our civilization, the greater chance we have for survival.
Bright Green and Deep Green do overlap in their shared desire for structural adjustments. The main difference here would be in “how much” and “how quickly.” Whereas Bright Green wants us to ease into changes that won’t alienate people, Deep Green sees an urgency for profound change and that it is unavoidable that this will be a difficult transition. The Bright Green movement, because it “feels” better and does not threaten the dominant power structure, gets the vast majority of attention in the press and in public discourse. . . . [But] . . . The environmental crisis we face is so massive that, at a minimum, we need to consider every possible strategy. https://www.fertilegroundinstitute.org/what-is-deep-green.html
For most humans, throughout most of our time on this planet, space was not a visual abstraction as seen from above (as in the maps at the end of this section). It was much more specific. Living and traveling in a particular area over thousands of years, people came to know the land in precise detail. It is not simply space, but place. Much of it is marked by generations of interactions between people, animals, sea, ice, and the land, as told in stories passed on from elders to the young for thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of years. In these stories, places become sacred, while stories, songs and other forms of human creation become different kinds of maps or ways of knowing the land. Maps are not only visual, but oral. The land itself takes on character and personality associated with stories of the ancestors, gods, spirit-beings, heroes, monsters, first peoples, animals, plants, creators, and tricksters. This is not to suggest that Indigenous peoples did not make visual maps. Inuit made very precise maps:
In Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland), the Inuit people are known for carving portable maps out of driftwood to be used while navigating coastal waters. These pieces, which are small enough to be carried in a mitten, represent coastlines in a continuous line, up one side of the wood and down the other. The maps are compact, buoyant, and can be read in the dark. https://decolonialatlas.wordpress.com/2016/04/12/inuit-cartography/.
For Indigenous people to leave their land can be a difficult experience. This does not mean that Indigenous peoples always remain in one place. Many have moved around continents, or from one continent to another, sometimes covering vast distances over the course of hundreds or even thousands of years. For example, the ancestors of Athapaskan or Dene speaking peoples moved east from Siberia to Alaska (and then possibly back again to become the Yeniseian or Ket peoples), then south from Alaska down the Pacific coast to California where some remained, while others moved east over the Sierra Nevada and the Mojave Desert to where they now live as the Dineh/Navaho and Apache Nations. Unlike many Indigenous peoples since colonization, the Navaho still occupy much of their original territory. The movements of some of these people is recounted in the Navaho creation story of Changing Woman and her children as they moved from one place to another. (Zolbrod, Paul G. Dine bahane: The Navaho Creation Story, University of New Mexico Press, 1984). Other Athapaskan peoples travelled northeast and then south, creating the Dene nations of the sub-Arctic boreal forest, and the Rocky Mountain region of what is now British Columbia. The history and geography of these movements looks quite different from an Indigenous as opposed to a Eurocentric perspective.
For those of us of European, Middle Eastern or South Asian origin, our ancestors also traveled enormous distances. Indo-European peoples originated in the southwestern grassland steppe region of Central Asia from about 6000 to 8000 years ago. Their culture and languages migrated with them from about 4500 BCE as they traveled both east into Iran and the Altai region of northwest China, south to Vedic India, and west into Europe. They are probably the first peoples to use wheeled transport and to domesticate horses for pulling wagons, ploughs and chariots, and later, riding. They were the original bronze age horse warriors, replacing what may have been ancient matriarchal cultures throughout Eurasia with deeply patriarchal and war-like civilizations from the Hittite Empire, Persians, the original Aryans of northern India, and the many branches of European language speakers from Russian to Irish, Icelandic to Spanish, Italian and Greek. Eventually, the descendants of these Indo-Europeans conquered the world. (Anthony, David W. The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, Princeton University Press, 2007; Gimbutas, Marija The Civilization of the Goddess, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991). It is perhaps interesting that the last great flowering of warrior horse cultures occurred in the 19th century as Lakota, Blackfoot, Cree, Comanche and Apache peoples on the Great Plains of North America adopted horses from Spanish-speaking settlers to create the iconic image of the Native American.
A Spider’s Web
According to the Lakota theologian and historian Vine Deloria Jr. in Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths:
The quarrel between evolutionists and creationists focuses on the explanation of a possible Earth history. Was it long and tedious, featuring gradual or even rapid episodes of organic growth from tiny molecules? Or was it a sudden creative blossoming of life forms with or without a creator? . . . The flaw in both Western scientific and religious thinking begins with the reception of the Old Testament by early gentile Christian converts in the Greco-Roman world. Accepting Genesis as the exclusive explanation of planetary history, they embraced the idea of a linear unfolding of cosmic time beginning in the Garden of Eden. St. Augustine firmly implanted the idea of the absolute progression of time in the Western mind so that it became a philosophical constant. Science simply appropriated linear history from Christianity when it sought to answer the question of origins. That appropriation now forces us to link everything in one grand temporal scenario in which life struggles from single-celled creatures to the complexity we find today. (p.131)
Our Eurocentric view of space as the mapping of one spot, on a two-dimensional projection of the world, to another is very similar to our ideas about time. We see history as moving through time from a beginning to an end. Sir Isaac Newton established the physics of the 18th and 19th centuries as a set of laws governing gravity, motion, space and time. He saw reality as a branching chain of cause and effect on a static background of space in which any future event could be determined if all past and existing variables could be known. By the early 20th century the deterministic universe of cause and effect was upended at both the largest and the smallest scales. Albert Einstein proposed in the special theory of relativity that matter and energy were essentially interchangeable (E = mc2) and that all motion is relative. He expanded this in the general theory of relativity to create a vision of the universe in which space and time exist as a space/time continuum. Matter and energy create disturbances or ripples within this continuum leading to effects that Isaac Newton had earlier identified as a force known as gravity. Meanwhile, at the smallest scale, cause and effect seem to disappear altogether as the tiniest sub-atomic units, or quanta, interact in ways that seem utterly strange to the world of visible light and substantial matter in which we live. Change can occur simultaneously between particles at massive distances with no seeming connection or communication (non-locality), while matter and energy behave as either particles or waves in unpredictable ways that can seem quite mysterious. The presence or activities of an observer (whether conscious or mechanical) seems to be a necessary part of this behaviour. Scientific discovery became essentially a matter of mathematical probabilities in which nothing is certain.
According to Professor Leroy Little Bear in Philosophy and Aboriginal Rights: Critical Dialogues the Blackfoot vision of the universe is one of constant flux, movement and change. It is not linear.
In the Native mind, there’s no notion of something being static. It’s constant flux in motion; flux that’s forever moving, forming, transforming, and deforming. If you could picture a geodesic spider web in motion, you’ll begin to see what we mean by a flux. (p.9)
The relationship between quantum physics to the spider’s web and flux of Indigenous thought is captured in David F. Peat’s ground-breaking work Blackfoot Physics. Professor Little Bear, working within an oral tradition rather than through a literary contribution, essentially co-authored the book through his conversations with Professor Peat. Blackfoot science and quantum (rather than Newtonian) physics bear some startling resemblances. The importance of the “arrow of time”, causation, and a lingering adherence to Newtonian physics differ radically from Indigenous histories of creation, journey, return, and sacred space.
Any discussion of relationships between people and the land – as in an examination of human interactions with the environment – needs to do more than simply acknowledge the existence of Indigenous perspectives, and then move onto a Western approach, whether scientific or historical. We cannot just begin our story “from the beginning” whenever that might be. Within Indigenous theories of the universe, there may well have been a beginning, but it is not necessarily about a specific point in time. It is more about relationships, renewal and the sacredness of place.
The difference is perhaps best exemplified by a story from the oral tradition of the Mi’kmaq of Atlantic Canada. In the story “Bring-back-animals” some men meet a stranger near their village who has a stone canoe and lives with his grandmother (named Nukumi) in a wigwam in the forest. This strange man is Kluskap, the hero of many Indigenous stories on the east coast of Canada and New England. He has the power to bring life back to the dead animals he has hunted or fished by chanting to their bones. He begins by saying to the men “I have lived here since the world began. I have my grandmother, she was here when the world was made.”
The man is a hero not only to humans, but also to the animals he revives. The phrase “I have lived here since the world began” is not a reference to a specific point in time. Rather, it begins the story of the relationship between humans and animals in the world as it has been known since creation – not through “time’s arrow”, but through the repeating circles of the Earth’s seasons, the sun, the moon and stars. It is about human responsibilities toward animals, and the gift of life that animals bring to humans. All of this is under the guidance of Kluskap, who has lived here “since the world began” and his grandmother who “was here when the world was made.”
A Newtonian perspective sees space as a blank background for events that occur over time, where time has a constant clock-work precision. Einstein’s theories of relativity reject this vision of space for a fluid “space/time”. Quantum physics seems to have made a chronological flow of time through cause and effect improbable. Indigenous perspectives are less about a linear progression from one point in time to another than they are about movement through space in which time and space are fundamentally connected. Causation is still there, but in an active rather than a passive sense. In a passive or deterministic universe, one event seems to lead inexorably towards another, as Newton envisioned and by which most of us of Eurasian descent are still deeply influenced. Both Indigenous perspectives and quantum physics seem to depend on active participation by observers and agents in order to create stability in the flux of time and space through observation and ceremony. All sentient beings from mountains, rivers, the Earth, the sea to plants and animals play a role in this. Humans have a special responsibility to maintain the rituals and the natural laws which keep all this in balance. We owe this responsibility to “all our relations” both human and non-human.
The land itself provides guidance. The stories of Indigenous history are almost always about places in a specific landscape, not a chronology of specific events. It is not just about sacred or secular history. In Indigenous thought there is no such separation. It is more a kind of sacred geography – the land, the water, the ice, the sky. And this sacred geography is not just for humans, but for all living beings. Active participants in the ongoing creation of the universe are not simply divine or human – they are everything and everywhere. Most non-Indigenous environmentalists, unless they are working within a religious or theological perspective, reject importing notions of the sacred into ecology or climate change. Instead, we insist on a secular scientific perspective. But, this perspective is often still within a Newtonian scientific world-view that remains stubbornly resistant to developments within Western science itself over the past century. This is partly because Newton himself was operating within an Enlightenment tradition which was actively rebelling against the dominance of the Church that had existed for the previous thousand years. Modern environmental sciences, including climatology, ecology and ocean sciences, still actively resist any engagement with the “sacred”, or misinterpret it as necessarily mystical or metaphysical, when in fact it is, from Indigenous perspectives, deeply physically rooted in the material world.
As Keith H. Bosso writes in Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache:
As conceived by Apaches from . . . the past is a well-worn ‘path’ or ‘trail’ (‘intin’) which was traveled first by the people’s founding ancestors and which subsequent generations of Apaches have traveled ever since. Beyond the memories of living persons, this path is no longer visible – the past has disappeared – and thus it is unavailable for direct consultation and study. For this reason, the past must be constructed – which is to say, imagined – with the aid of historical materials, sometimes called ‘footprints’ or ‘tracks’ (biké’ goz’ấấ), that have survived into the present. These materials come in various forms, including Apache place-names, Apache stories and songs, and different kinds of relics . . . Because no one knows when these phenomena came into being, locating past events in time can be accomplished only in a vague and general way. This is of little consequence, however, for what matters most to Apaches is where events occurred, not when, and what they serve to reveal about the development and character of Apache social life. In light of these priorities, temporal considerations, though certainly not irrelevant, are accorded secondary importance. (p.31)
Renewal ceremonies, stories, even jokes, get repeated every year in order to ensure that order is maintained over chaos. Humans, animals, plants, rocks, mountains, rivers, spirits all play a role in maintaining balance within this constant universal dance. Indigenous peoples – without exception as far as I can tell – traditionally identify with a specific place, their relations with everything in that place, and their responsibilities to keep that place and themselves in harmony. This is true even where people choose, or are forced to, move. Certain places have a sacred power where creation continues to occur. And not just for humans. Everything is alive, everything is part of the web of creation that needs to be maintained. Some Indigenous people give thanks by saying “all my relations” while lifting up their hands. This includes all life within their circle of place and relationship. It is an act of gratitude and respect. It’s never about the “been there, done that . . . move on” approach identified by Little Bear as so common to a linear mindset. It is about survival on the land in which the people and all of life (present, ancestral and future) must continue to exist together. Without that constant attention to renewal, ceremony and relationship, the continual flux and change within creation becomes unbalanced. (Little Bear, Philosophy and Aboriginal Rights, pp.9-18).
Of course, many Indigenous peoples have had to adapt to lives without their land and without connection with these old relationships. But this loss creates enormous social and cultural pain on top of all the other problems associated with colonization. Surprisingly settlers and migrants often suffer this same sense of loss, producing an insatiable desire to recreate the old connections that existed from “where they are from” in this strange new land. This does not seem to have created any social or cultural empathy with the people being displaced from these new lands. Settlers and migrants of the past few centuries have not yet had time to learn the land sufficiently well to keep their relations in balance. Even worse, many of us do not seem to think this is important, although environmental degradation and climate change seem to be waking people up to the damage we are doing. The imbalance within creation that Little Bear has identified is clearly upon us now.
Tewa (Pueblo) scientist and philosopher Gregory Cajete identifies five general principles within Native American thought. It is worth quoting his observations in full:
First, they [American Indian spiritual traditions] lack a particular espoused doctrine of religion. Indian languages do not even have a word for religion; rather, the words used refer to a way of living, a tradition of the people. This reflects an orientation to a process rather than to an intellectual structure. Spiritual traditions are tools for learning and experiencing rather than ends in themselves.
Second, Indian spiritual traditions hold that spoken words and language have a quality of spirit because they are expressions of human breath. Language in the form of prayer and song has therefore a life energy that can affect other energy and life forms toward certain ends. For American Indians, language used in a spiritual, evocative, or affective context is “sacred” and has to be used responsibly.
Third, the creative act of making something with spiritual intent – what today is often called art – has its own quality and spiritual power that needs to be understood and respected. In fact, for Native Americans, art traditionally was a result of a creative process that was an act and expression of the spirit and was therefore sacred.
The fourth principle is the notion that life and spirit, the dual faces of the Great Mystery, move in never-ending cycles of creation and dissolution; therefore, ceremonial forms, life activities, and the transformations of spirit are cyclical. These cycles in turn follow visible and invisible patterns of nature and the cosmos. In response to this creative principle, ritual cycles are used to structure and express the sacred in the communal context of traditional Native American life.
The fifth principle is the shared understanding that nature is the true “ground” of spiritual reality. The forms and faces of nature are expressions of spirit whose qualities interpenetrate the life and process of human spirituality; therefore, for American Indians and Indigenous peoples as a whole, nature is sacred and a spiritual ecology is reflected throughout. (p.264)
The worlds of spirit and matter are not separate – they are two different faces of the “Great Mystery” of the cosmos. Indigenous science is based on this dual reality which can be unified. The emphasis is on the process of change within circles of time, not primarily on cause and effect (although this too has a role in the interpretation of the land and the practical knowledge that goes with it).
The Trickster is frequently misunderstood by non-Indigenous peoples (including myself) and, like shamanism, can be appropriated in ways that do not reflect the complexity of this figure within Indigenous sacred philosophies. He (he is almost always a “he”) can take many forms – Raven, Coyote, Jack Rabbit, Spider-woman, Kluskap – the strange man “who has been here since the world began” – all can be seen as Tricksters. Within Anishinabe thought he is often called Nanabozho or Nanabush. He is a spirit of creation and transformation, although he is not the Creator of all things. His actions often seem unpredictable, annoying or even dangerous. But he also reminds people of the way to live a good life. Professor John Borrows tells the story of how Nanabush woke people up one day from sadness, lethargy and despair. “He finally spoke, and reproved the people for their foolishness. He chastised them for forgetting their power of re-creation and regeneration.” (Borrows, Drawing Out Law, pp.14-16). He gathered the people around the central fire and threw stones he had gathered from a stream up into the air. They changed into beautiful colours, and then into butterflies. The children laughed, the dogs began to bark, and the adults soon began smiling. Joy returned to the land as people remembered the beauty and power of everything around them, and their own roles in maintaining creation in balance.
Nanabush had taken something that was seemingly ordinary and transformed it to create new life. He [Mishomis] wondered how many other people remembered these deeper laws about hope and healing. The land and their old stories had much to teach them about how to live well in the world. . . . The powers of regeneration and re-creation were literally at hand. (p.16)
Another origin story is told on the Pacific West Coast in a poem by the Haida poet Skaay. This story describes how four Indigenous nations of the Northwest Coast were called up out of the earth by the Trickster Raven (in this incarnation he is known as Voicehandler’s Heir):
After Voicehandler’s Heir had walked back and forth, he stamped on the ground to the right of the doorway.The earth split open at his feet.Someone held a drum up from underneath the ground,and a line formed behind it.He went to the opposite side.He stamped there too.“Even dirt can turn to human beings.”Someone lifted up a drum in that place too.He did it again in the back of the house at one side.Someone lifted a drum in that place too.He did it again on the opposite side.Then there were four lines streaming.
Tsimshian, Haida, People from the Distant Coast, and Tlingitwere singing their songs from his uncle’s house.And while they were singing, his uncle was saying,“Well, we have plenty of food!”They arranged themselves in the house,and a crowd of people gathered near the doorto serve the meal. (A Story as Sharp as a Knife, p.260)
As Bringhurst, who collected and translated these poems and stories, says:
Human beings . . . did not make their own way to the surface of the earth for their own purposes. They were summoned to the surface from their place within the earth because the spirit-beings needed them to stage a celebration. (p.261)
Humans are always part of a web of life which includes spirit-beings like the Trickster in his many manifestations, animals, birds, fish, plants, mountains, rocks and rivers. Raven’s uncle in the story of Voicehandler’s Heir is Qinggi who incarnates the largest mountain in southeastern Haida Gwaii and is “its resident deity, spirit or killer whale.” (p.259) Humans are necessary because they can perform the ceremonies, celebrations and rituals required to keep creation in balance.
Complexity and Unity
E. Richard Atleo of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation on the west coast of Vancouver Island describes, in Principles of Tsawalk: An Indigenous Approach to Global Crisis, that “reality” is a unified whole or “tsawalk (one)” in which “relationships are qua (that which is)”.
The ancient Nuu-chah-nulth assumed an interrelationship between all life forms – humans, plants and animals. Relationships are. Accordingly, social, political, economic, constitutional, environmental, and philosophical issues can be addressed under the single theme of interrelationships, across all dimensions of reality – the material and non-material, the visible and the invisible. (p.ix)
He goes on to discuss the problem of crisis and violence in our current world order:
. . . according to the theory of tsawalk (one), any planetary stage of crisis must, by definition, be a shared responsibility, a shared experience. The Nuu-chah-nulth notion that reality is fundamentally an interconnected and interrelated whole regardless of its seeming polarity, its seeming contradictions, has been interpreted historically in one of two ways. The first is indicated by what [Samuel] Huntingdon defines as the progress of civilization, which, it is argued, sets the current stage of crisis. This crisis is defined as one of interrelationships between humans and between humans and other life forms. In this interpretation of reality, the practice has been to eliminate opposition to, for example, the imagined ideal of progress. Until recently, this has meant the extirpation of non-European beliefs and lifeways through legislation and policy. This has involved a process of resource extraction that has proven degrading to nature. . .
The second interpretation of the Nuu-chah-nulth notion of a unified but polarized reality remains largely peripheral to centres of power and influence. In this interpretation the focus is on the development of sustainable relationships between life forms. In other words, it is on managing polarity by working to transform the inherent contradictions of reality into a sustainable balance and harmony so that all life forms can continue to live. This interpretation of the interrelated characteristic of reality seeks not to eliminate opposition but, rather, to employ the natural oppositions and apparent contradictions of reality to realize wholeness. (pp.57-58)
This idea that reality is a complex process which is inherently unified or one, despite its seeming contradictions, insists that humans have a shared responsibility to find balance and harmony – to create order out of potential chaos. This is not just a philosophical or religious ideal, nor is it simply a metaphor or myth. It has very concrete, practical implications. It really is about survival.
The land is central to this process of “survival through relationships and harmony”. Knowledge is not exchanged – it is a gift learned through ceremony, and the renewal of ceremonies over generations. Respect for ancestral knowledge, adaptation to new conditions, and the protection of the world for future generations, are all central to Indigenous thought. Everyone and everything relies on the Earth for life and wellbeing. This is an ancient truth which modern humans not only have forgotten, but resist as a basic principle of life on this planet. Even many environmentalists, particularly of the “Bright Green” majority, simply will not see the connections between resource extraction, depletion and destruction as the “primitive accumulation” upon which our modern political economies rest, and that this logic of consumption is not sustainable under any technological or structural adjustment regime we can imagine or invent within our current ways of thinking. Eco-feminist perspectives based on relational perspectives, or, more broadly, on an “ethic of care” as outlined in Part II, have a strong connection to Indigenous ways of thinking even where these are not explicitly examined in any depth, or are misinterpreted. (See Mies, Maria and Shiva, Vandana Eco-Feminism, Zed Books, 1993).
For Inuit of the Arctic this process of survival means observing rules that protect the land so that the people and animals can live. As the late elder Mariano Aupilaarjuk explains in Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut:
We used to get told not to live in one area too long; Inuit thought the land would carry sickness if lived in for too long or the animals would get scarce. They didn’t like to live in lands that didn’t have animals. They used to move camp all the time because they wanted to stay on healthy land. The land we lived on when we have been in certain areas and come back to them, it is like being welcomed by the land. Even where there are no people on the land, there is a feeling that the land is really yours. (p.121)
This feeling of ownership is not about property, about buying and selling and then moving on, it is about belonging and guardianship. Animals also have to be respected. The late Inuit elder Lucien Ukaliannuk used to teach that you should not talk about polar bears as they can hear you and may be offended. Living on the land or hunting on the ice with polar bears nearby means learning to respect their presence and power. In addition, humans and other animals used to be able to transform into one another. Shamans or angakkuit had this power. Because animals, especially polar bears, are so closely related to us it is necessary to respect them. They also give us life. There are laws or maligait about how to greet guests, share food, treat animals killed for food and all other aspects of life. Not all these rules are still followed. Since the introduction of Christianity, relocation off the land into settlements, residential schools and the imposition of government control over so much of Inuit life, many of these rules were forbidden or have dropped from use (Ukaliannuk, oral teachings). But, as Aupilaarjuk says in Interviewing Inuit Elders: Perspectives on Traditional Law:
Let us think of the Earth as a woman. The Earth is very big and strong and gives us food. A woman is also very strong. She feeds the children and helps them grow. We are not to misuse our wives, we are to take good care of them. We also have to take care of our Earth so that it is not misused or exploited. (p.17)
In Inuktitut, the Inuit language of the Eastern Arctic, the word for both the environment and intelligence is sila. Silajuaq is the universe or the powerful spirit of the air. Silatuniq means the knowledge of the old ones, or wisdom. As Jaypeetee Arnakak has said:
I truly believe in this Sila and the means with which Inuit shamanism accessed its depths and breadth through suffering and fasting. It is through suffering that the phenomenal self lets go and equanimity is achieved, clarity is achieved. Nature is indifferent; it cares nothing for our limited conceptions of “good” and “bad”, “evil” and “beneficence”. This insight can either kill us or liberate within us unbounded creativity.
The concept of Silatuniq can help bring about a true balanced relationship with the environment and the universe that is fundamentally ethical, not economic. But there is a problem, as Arnakak points out:
. . . this Silatuniq may contradict dominant cultural assumptions for everyday living. Beyond the narrowing dynamics of cultural assumptions, colonial pressures, and expanding climate impacts, this dialogue suggests a fourth dynamic is limiting the breadth of interdisciplinary and intercultural research on Sila’s northern warming: the West’s rational rejection of shamanic or spiritual wisdom for socially contextualizing knowledge. Book, pp.290-291.
Reconciling Sacred Places with Secular Histories
On the west coast of Alaska is a community known as Unalakleet, or Uŋalaqłiq, an Iñupiaq name meaning “from the southern side”. It is just south of Cape Denbigh where an ancient village site known as Iyatayet is located. It is one of the oldest human settlement sites in Alaska. The archeologist J. Louis Giddings uncovered evidence of settlements going back at least 5000 years including the remains of a Thule/Inuit village (Nukleet), an older settlement which is between 2500 and 3000 years old, and the even older remains of the Arctic small tool tradition or Denbigh Flint Complex going back at least 4500 to 5000 years. Each of these layers indicates a succession of cultures similar to other sites found all over the Arctic. It is possible this site is where the original Inuit (Iñupiaq and Yup’ik) settled after leaving Siberia. Iñupiaq and Yup’ik are closely related and speak languages that can be mutually understood. Uŋalaqłiq, the modern settlement a little to the south, has been a meeting and trading place for Iñupiaq, Yup’ik and Athapaskan speaking peoples from the Alaskan interior for thousands of years.
There is another way to tell the story of this important place in the history of the Indigenous peoples of Alaska. This is a short version as told by the elder and story teller Tikasuk (Emily Ivanov Brown) who was born in Uŋalaqłiq in 1904:
Ayaatayat [Iyatayet], the original village at Cape Denbigh, is the grandfather of all the Eskimo villages in that area. It was the very first organized community and was established maybe 10,000 years ago. The present village of Cape Denbigh is built on this same site.
My Aunt Kiiriq’s ancestral tribesmen lived at this first village and handed down their history to her by word of mouth; she repeated it over and over, until it became part of her. As she repeated it to me, I wrote it down, and I now pass it on to the reader. One of the stories she told me is this epic legend which follows, in which the main character is an eagle-man.
The eagle-man lived with his parents on the south tip of a peninsula which had a high cliff. Like many characters found in Unaliq [Yup’ik] legends, this man was capable of turning from human to animal (an eagle, in this case) and vice-versa. When he was transformed into an eagle, he was a great flyer, had the instincts of an eagle, and was able to hunt sea mammals by clawing them. Whenever he returned to his home on the cliff, he transformed himself into a human.
The story begins with life among the surviving members of the eagle-men who lived at the end of Cape Denbigh peninsula as cliff dwellers. This peninsula, which, according to legend, was once an island, lies between Norton Bay on the western side and the Shaktoolik (Saqtuliq) mountain range on the eastern side. The distance between the island and the mountain range is about eighteen miles. The area of the sea eventually receded, and the lowland that formed there became a bridge between Cape Denbigh Island and the eastern mountain range. Many years were required for this process, and the land was not inhabited until the latter part of an era when supernatural giants and eagle-men lived in this particular area.
Just before the expiration of the first known era of supernatural beings, the first human family migrated to the virgin tundra and settled on the coast of this eighteen-mile stretch of lowland. The legend teller himself did not know who they were or where they came from, but he thought they came from the south. This family had only one child, and she was a young woman. The surviving family of eagle-men was an aged mother and her son. Since the father had died, this only son had become a great hunter. His aged mother, though quite feeble, was able to live a long life with her son.
One evening when he returned home from his flights over the countryside, the eagle-man surprised his mother by bringing back a female human [the daughter of the first humans]. This female was destined to become a prime factor in the change of supernatural humanity to natural man, and to bring about the move from the cliffs to a new homesite called Ayaatayat [Iyatayet].
When the eagle-man moved his family to Ayaatayat, or Nukleet, the first community at Cape Denbigh cove, his supernatural ability ceased to function and he lost his eagle skin and tail. According to the legend, this was a stage of transition, and he lived a life of duality while he built a home on the eastern slope of Cape Denbigh. . . . (Tales of Ticasuk, pp.3-4)
There is much more to this story, just as there is much more to learn from the Iyatayet archeological site where this story was first told. Which version is true? Both are recounting human relationships with the land. The “legend” is much richer, more detailed, and pays close attention to the formation of the land itself. The archeological story may be more accurate in terms of dates and objects, but it doesn’t explain why people were there.
Are these stories really connected? Do they reflect a natural commonality of human experience that used to exist everywhere? Can that human connection between ourselves and the Earth be reclaimed? What can we learn from these older stories that recount how our ancestors and many Indigenous peoples survived and still survive? Where can we find the truth of our collective connections within ourselves, with each other, and with the place where we live – Earth? Given the radically different approaches to be found, how can the history of Indigenous peoples and settlers be reconciled or, perhaps, transformed? How do we re-envision past, present and future within the primacy of place – secular history with sacred geography? And how does this relate to our current tangle of environmental and social crises in which science, history, space and time appear to be taking us over the edge of a cliff. If Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives cannot be reconciled or transformed, can we survive the massive changes we are all facing? Mariya Gimbutas (cited above) attempts to recreate a history of “Old Europe” that existed for thousands of years before those Bronze Age horse warriors came sweeping across Eurasia with their chariots, swords and patriarchal ways of living from which our modern imperial cultures seem to be directly descended. Our own dilemmas seem far removed from that ancient confrontation (if it ever actually occurred) between an ancestral matriarchal way of life and what we have now. From the invention of the wheel to the invention of the lithium battery seems like a big leap. Is it?