Wednesday, January 03, 2018

A touchy subject

As mentioned in my last blog, I'm reading the book The Deer and the Cauldron, which is famous for its protagonist's way with words, his seven wives and, unique for a Louis Cha kungfu novel, his complete inadequacy in kungfu. (Kungfu panda would squash him.) I don't know how much of a stir it created when it was first published in serial form in a Hong Kong newspaper between 1969 and 1972, but reading it now does make one fee a little uncomfortable. The "now" being a world where women rightly have the protection of their bodies from molestation and invasion, not just in law but also increasingly in fact. Last year will be remembered as the year where sexual harassment cases involving prominent men hit something of a critical mass in what has been called the Harvey Weinstein effect. That was in October, but I blogged a similar situation in my own world in June, which is almost certainly under the same umbrella. Reading this book makes me think about these cases as well as a more recent event in Gisborne.

The discomfort in reading it comes from the antics/crimes of Wei Xiaobao, the protagonist, which I'll list below. (I'll write these from memory; anyone disputing them, please make a comment and I'll double-check; definitely not an exhaustive list.) He:
- Threatened a girl (Mu Jianping) in order to touch her inappropriately
- Touched and kissed her and her older sect-sister, Fang Yi, without consent
- Touched another girl's breasts in combat (Chen Ke)
- Groped a girl in a haysack and claimed it was another man.
- Used terror to force a girl to submit to marriage.
- Stripped a girl naked and whipped her (Princess Jianning)
- Had sexual relations with the girl who had been engaged to another man.
- Temporarily paralysed seven women, stripped them naked, and raped them under a duvet in the dark, resulting in at least two pregnancies.
- Used threats in an attempt to get women to spend the night with him, only relenting when shamed.
And in the book, all though who were assaulted, felt compelled to marry him.

Pretty damning, eh, even if just fictional. Context doesn't help much but let's be fair: He was born in brothel; he was a minor by our standards when doing most of the acts above, and he was even young by the standards of China; it was the Qing Dynasty, which though having a high degree of etiquette and typically conservative attitudes towards intimacy and the relationships of the two sexes, had very few rights for women, except through their relation to other men, such as a father, husband or parentage.

Yet Wei is a hero to many Chinese (men). When the novel was given to me, my brother-in-law said that he is the model of how he'd like to be, although he was probably emphasising Wei's gift of the gab. Of course, Wei Xiaobao is a fictional character. There may be characters in the western canon who incidentally did similar. Of course, there are thousands of scenes in even recent movies, which in the light of things reportedly done to the women in the #metoo. Over my wife's shoulder, I saw in The Princess Diaries, a male character who'd secretly fancied a workmate for a long time, inspired by the female protagonist's words, went over and attempt a french kiss on this girl. Film and literature, by their fictional nature, are good to explore these things, and are reflections of the values at the time in their unexplained conventions. One of those conventions in many movies is the shy antihero grabbing the girl and forcing himself on her in what could be called "romantic", but most often these actions are in fact longed for by the other party so consent was assumed perhaps subtly given, which in the movies is usually the case. The same actions would be quite clearly upsetting if the feelings were not quite reciprocated - but that isn't usually the case in most mainstream movies.

Taking it back to real life, I believe a lot of men would have the idea that the "romantic expression" of chancing their arm and kissing or hugging a girl who they like is fine. Equally, doing something lewd while drunk for a bit of fun wouldn't be unexpected, which was the case in a recent "big NZ news" item, of the girl at the Rhythm n' Vines festival in Gisborne over the new year. Summing up: A girl covers her chest with glitter and walks bra-less and top-less through the festival. She generally receives a degree of verbal harassment (and support) and during her time there has her breast momentarily grabbed by another festival-goer, who runs away quickly. She goes over and hits him. In a later interview she says the obvious fact that can't be repeated more that she has every right to not be subjected to that physical harassment, and should have legal recourse. (And it might be said that so should he have protection against physical violence.)

To be completely honest I think everyone should have the right to wear as much or as little as they want in public, without threat of state interference, and with the right not to be subjected to physical interference from others, as the saying goes: "Your liberty ends where my nose begins." But that is my ideal and not this world. Glory to she who feels so comfortable to do so. I also believe in the free speech of those who might say horrendous things to her as she walks confidently in the East Coast heat.

But, I equally think there is a social realpolitik in this world of ideals and "rights" and I say this with more than an ounce of dread: she should have expected some response, even possible a possible violation of her person, walking around like that. If she were an activist for these freedoms, good on her and I encourage her to steel herself. If she were naive, I pity her but am glad it hasn't done her apparent damage. I wrote about something similar at the start of 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Namely, laws and rights are what the Leviathan of the state will ensure on its part and uphold for you legally. But society, the wild, wild world, will always have its own rules that evolve and develop, in different microcosms and macrocosms. Even if the rights are given by the state, you may still need to take on a tough activist mindset to make sure you can truly enjoy those rights. A similar example might be that the Homosexual Law Reform act was passed over 30 years ago, but in New Zealand, you'll rarely see open intimacy between homosexual male or female to the same extent that heterosexual couples may exhibit in this day and age. I'd say that is because still the social norms have not changed along with the laws to allow for that equality between sexual orientations. Those brave enough to do so are rare and almost need to don an "activist mindset" being ready to cop "flak" and potentially have the risk of physical violence in some spaces.

The action of our glitter-girl could be said to be provocative but most of those who are part of the #metoo movement were merely trying to be themselves. But I'd say the norms that lead to both the "boob-grabbing" at Gisborne and the workplace harassment were pretty much the same. It's the one where no-one felt a cheeky smart-talker in Qing dynasty essentially raping girls who later became his wives can be a hero, where drunkenness excuses excesses towards women (whether it is he or she that has drunk too much), or where workplace power differences can be instrumental in getting sexual favours. Social  norms change in their own time, whether through time or through that constant evolution of minds. The conservative minds will still growl and whine that political correctness means that no-one can take a joke and the good old days have ended. But that's the groan of progress towards a better way of being for all, and not just a historically privileged subset.

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