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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Classroom Discussions Centered Around an Ex-Social Worker

I can’t speak for everyone but one thing I’m grateful for as I grow older is the ability to move away from the classroom as a space where information is drilled into your head only to be regurgitated for standardized testing. Now, the classroom is an extension of my life that prompts me to think, and to engage with material and people of different opinions. Or maybe the reason I find classes interesting nowadays is simply because I’m taking a subject I’m actually intellectually invested in – namely, Sociology.

I think I’d fall into the category of students who talk just a tad too much in classroom discussions, which is in no way meant to be something impressive. I think it’s annoying, so I don’t mind anyone agreeing with me. During the first class of last week, though, I was quiet. In Sociology, basically everything I’m interested in talking about is put on the table. There is the unavoidable problem, of course, of people who don’t see eye to eye with me.

Things like a group-mate of mine – a girl – telling me that girls are emotionally unstable compared to boys (who, according to her, are just immature) fall on the extreme end of the spectrum. I don’t hear things like that a lot but I’m not optimistic that it’ll stay that way. There was also someone who opined that young people getting married is something that society looks down upon. I’m actually not too sure whether people actually believe what they say, or they’re just trying to give the ‘right’ answers in a subject that begs of you to think and apply yourself. But I think I’m climbing too far up on my high horse.

I don’t think of myself in isolation to others much these days, or at least I try not to. Most of their faults are things I’ve committed myself. Another thing about being older is that I learn that people you trusted to be on your side, self-professed progressives as they are, are capable of hurting you just as much as people who are simply ignorant on a subject, or even those completely indoctrinated to the point of no return. At this point, it’s still too early to say anything, and none of them are contributing any more measurable damage to society than I am. So I don't fancy myself arbiter. At college, I let most things slide; something I'm actually working on changing because it's not exactly a source of pride. At any rate, I think 18 years of life is quite enough time to form your own opinions on justice, whether you share them out in the open or not.

The fact remains, however, that I am able to have captivating conversations with my classmates, and that they are more than willing to listen and be captivated by what I have to say. This doesn't change the fact that I mostly talk to Alia and Atia, because I know I can expect responses from them that I’d be interested to hear and incorporate into my own thoughts. If the previous post was any indication, this week, I talked about marriage a lot.

If I’m disappointed or disturbed by anything my classmates have to say, that doesn’t quite compare to having to listen to your lecturer talk about her experiences with barely veiled bigotry. As an ex social worker, she talked about how the youths she’s had to rehabilitate (this included us ungodly gays) mostly came from broken homes. Fair enough. Who am I to argue statistics? She then went on to explain why. Broken families, with either single mothers or fathers, are harmful to a child’s growth because (you knew this was coming) we need both a masculine and feminine influence in our lives!

No wonder gay people exist! They just haven’t had enough masculine or feminine influence growing up! Apparently we live in this reality where which society itself isn't enough to program masculinity and femininity into boys and girls respectively. Anyways, a single parent, without the balancing influence of their spouse, would have their masculinity or femininity magnified. Fathers would be more aggressive and abusive. Mothers would… well, to quote my lovely lecturer, “mothers are weak”, thus without a husband to shove a hand up their sock puppet ass, mothers will apparently become too lenient with their children.

This was her functional analysis of gender roles in marriage, and the effects of its dysfunction. She is presenting her experiences and opinions with such convictions and blatant discrimination, to an impressionable group of students who already have misogyny firmly entrenched in their belief systems. No mention of how gender roles itself contribute to such a situation in the first place, and how heteronormative expectations make it near impossible to run a family singlehandedly. No mention of economic conditions that lead to divorce, as the root of children acting out and rebelling. If she’s comfortable presenting only a functional perspective of gender roles in marriage, then I can say for certain that I’m just uncomfortable hearing it. Also, what the fuck on saying mothers are weak? 

From that and a few other instances that continued to bug me throughout the week, I approached several of my friends to discuss the Marriage question I talked about in my previous post. I’m not exactly against opening up avenues of conversation with people I rarely talk to, I just know that I’m probably not going to be happy with their reply. So I was pleasantly surprised when a classmate of mine started talking about her confusion regarding domestic violence. For a long time, she had been trying to figure out why a woman in such a situation wouldn’t just leave her husband. Atia was there as well, and we had a conversation about it. 

I used to think that most people were averse to thinking, and particularly allergic to pondering structural inequality, but that's just nowhere near the truth. Some people are just scared to speak, to follow their train of thought to the end. Regardless, like I said, these are thoughts that do come across most women’s minds whether they’d like to entertain them or not. Yesterday, I watched a video on Sexual Violence and Neoliberalism. I was particularly interested in Tithi Bhattacharya’s part, which I thought articulated the jumbled up thoughts I had on the contradictory nature of expectations women are faced with in the globalized political and economic climate.


In the talk, Tithi explained the manifest contradictions in neoliberalism with regards to social reproduction, i.e. that women need to be part of production, that they are just as much a source of labor to exploit as men, but at the same time, they also play a significant role in reproduction that extends far beyond the birthing process to include everything circumscribed as being in the home or the ‘women’s domain’. In other words, “individual families (and women in particular) need to be burdened with the task of social reproduction but on the other hand, production needs to pull all of the working class into the process of capital accumulation".

The global rise of violence against women therefore is a reaction to this, as it corresponds to the rise of globalization and capitalism. The escalation of violence against women, and its defenses and normalization by powerful institutions perform for capital the job of controlling reproductive labor. Sexual harassment in the workplace, rape, domestic violence, and like forms of violence are tools utilized to enshrine male dominance, and to ensure women 'know their place' in the social reproduction process. Otherwise put, “[increased violence against women] works for capitalism by making women compensate for the two decades of erosion of social reproduction that neoliberalism brought.”

This answers the question of the increased gendered violence and further reinforcement of male chauvinism in a capitalist society. It also fits neatly into the narrative of women in Malaysia, and the lose-lose situation I described in my VOY post. Further confusing matters in Malaysia, however, is the post-80’s Islamization period, which I had read up on before:
"The legitimization of the newly founded resurgent Islamic organizations was dependent on the credentials of their membership. It was important that the movement could be backed by the support of highly educated women. At a period when Malays were trying to assert their sense of economic competence, this was a significant projection. Hence, it was never possible to neglect the need for women’s leadership no matter how pervasively the discourse of domestication was being disseminated. Women were actually shielded from the risk of real subjugation as there was still a gap between theory and practice, between discourse and reality, and between what was aspired to and what was achieved by the resurgent movement. In Malaysia, there were two contradictory agendas: an ethnic and a religious one. The NEP was aimed at creating a class of successful and assertive Malays (to a certain extent cutting across gender), but the Islamic agenda was heavily geared towards subduing women’s public role. Thus, no matter how theoretically rigid some of the Islamic interpretations on women’s roles were, women still existed in a practical world that allowed them leeway to escape from the manifestations of dogmatism."
- Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Malaysia: An Unsung (R)Evolution
There was more of interest in the video, and again I point to Tithi’s first half hour. She touched on the erosion of state-enforced social protections (later, Jennifer Roesch devoted a point to it and the ‘concomitant emphasis on nuclear family child care' – or basically, the war on welfare and privatization of social programs that aid child care, forcing those women who cannot afford it to bear the brunt of the work themselves): “The state sector still existed but in an exhausted and deracinated state. Any minimal service provided came with a strong dose of social shaming and moralism, most often built around sexist stereotypes as if the ‘failure’ of women was something that necessitated state intervention.” 

And I don’t know a better way to come full circle to what my lecturer had opined on her previous clients. In Silvia Federici’s portion of the talk, she opened by describing the stigma faced by families that eventually get tangled up in state ‘care’, such as women asking for help and support is deemed an indicator, in a roundabout way, of their inability to support their children. I also noted the things that she said regarding the increase in violence against women: that the exchange of male wage for female subservience is now being replaced by a surplus of violence. Tithi and Silvia’s parts were very informative and enlightening, and it was a joy for me to listen to their talk after the week I’ve had, so I highly recommend listening to both of them.

Back in the classroom, I’ll admit I don’t actually know the ethics behind teaching. For all I know, they signed an agreement to espouse only 'neutral' (read: conforming) views in class. But a spade’s a spade. She might think it all right to say what she did, and she might be expected or felt obligated to, but she’s influencing people who look to her for direction, and she’s leading them the wrong way.

One thing I realized is that social science subjects can’t be treated like the ‘hard’ sciences most of us are accustomed to. It’s not about rote memorization. Understanding and application play such a vital role. Without knowing the basics of what oppression is, you can’t understand the sociological conflict perspective, for instance. I’ve heard a lot of my classmates give wrong examples with regards to this paradigm, some of which were greenlighted by our lecturer. I think it’s pretty simple and straightforward to memorize a definition, and by the end of our lesson on the different perspectives used in Sociology, I was pretty sure I got it all down, but then people started confusing me with their different interpretations.

This led me to question the efficacy of our education, with all its pitfalls magnified to the highest degree in a tertiary institution. We're so used to using memorizing as a studying technique, and I'm no less guilty for having coasted through most of my life on good memory alone. I’ve always been confused at the structure of our college's curriculum and national education system in the first place. How can Critical Reading be a prerequisite to Critical Thinking? Why is Critical Thinking only taught at college level in a language that’s not even our mother-tongue, that is considered a foreign and uncomfortable language for most students in the kinds of program I'm enrolled in?

But then again, do I really believe that a strong grasp on Critical Thinking as a subject is sufficient to overcome cultural biases and socially conditioned prejudice? I’m not sure. I’m still excited to get back to class and learn more, though. It definitely beats staying at home. I no longer view learning as a one way street – it’s a two-way process, or maybe even going beyond that. It’s neither unilateral nor bilateral, it’s up and down and left and right and in every possible direction you can think of. I hope that in the classes to come, the discussions will be guided towards something vaguely resembling the right direction, but I’m not all that optimistic.

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