Or, Social Justice Fail.
I was just walking around campus today and I saw two things that got me thinking: a button that said “Ta-tas are awesome!” with a pink ribbon on it, and a sign asking you to call in and tell someone what you think about environmental preservation or something like that.
I don’t like the way the breast cancer issue is pitched, but for the first time today I realized that it’s sort of the same thing as the way PETA pitches their issue. We have a good cause, we want to recruit people to it, but we don’t think they’ll go for just plain helping women/animals, for just a sappy good cause, so we sell it with sex. Except usually, when people say “sex sells”, unless they’re talking very literally about prostitution*, what they really mean is “(pictures of/allusions to) women’s bodies sell.” And when you sell female sexuality, you’re supporting a whole sexist construct of objectification. But who cares about that, as long as you’re helping women and animals? And in the case of breast cancer, it can’t be wrong, it’s for women! Except it’s not for women, it’s for their ta-tas, at least according to your advertising. Believe me when I say that I know how hard it is to get people to give a shit about the most urgent of good causes. But if you’re going to help, help. Don’t help my body at the expense of my self-worth.
Quick quiz: Do I think buttons about ta-tas and t-shirts about saving second base are going to usher in the apocalypse? No. Will I personally wear them? No. Do I know people with breast cancer and hope they get better and hope someone cures it? Yes.
So just after having that whole train of thought, I got started thinking about what people I know would say if asked for their opinions on environmental conservation. And for some reason I got the voice of the leader of this Christian club I used to be in saying something about stewardship. Stewardship is the word that people in that particular brand of Christianity use whenever they talk about the environment. It’s the idea that God gave us the earth and we’re supposed to take care of it. We’re not 100% owners necessarily, but we’re in charge till Jesus gets back. And in the meantime we have authority over it, but we’re supposed to use that power for good rather than for evil. And then all of the sudden** I realized that this is the same way they talk about men with respect to women. Men have the authority, but it’s cool because they’re supposed to be nice with it. They’re supposed to deign to love women the way divine immortal perfect Jesus loves the sinning, whoring Church, no matter how much she fucks up and fucks around. I can’t imagine why Hallmark hasn’t started using that line in their Valentine’s Day cards yet.
It’s the idea of the benevolent dictator. In the end, the environment gets cared for and the women don’t get beaten, if you really do make a good steward. But is that what we’re shooting for? Are our standards that low? (I can just hear the Christians saying “loving someone enough to DIE for them is a LOW standard?!!” Keep reading.) Or should we consider that women and the environment don’t exist just for the purposes that men would set them to, and don’t belong to men? Obviously not everything we’re talking about here can think, but the environment certainly serves other thinking and/or feeling beings besides men, so even if the rocks won’t care what you do to them, somebody else might care what you do to them. So rights come into play.
It reminds me of when I asked a couple of Christian friends (and sort of mentors) what they thought about the Bible saying husbands should love their wives and wives should respect their husbands. They said they didn’t think you could have love without respect. To them, it probably meant that the Bible was ok, because it meant the same thing both times; to me, it meant that the girl who explained that passage to me by saying that in a survey asking whether you’d rather be loved or respected if you could only choose one, women chose loved and men chose respected, was indeed oversimplifying (and I realized later, ignoring the effects of socialization) and that I wasn’t crazy to think I should have both.
So again, if you’re going to help, how about you actually help, instead of securing me an empty shell of protection while completely undermining the rights I want in the first place. And although the environment can’t say that, I think a respectful attitude towards it will create more actual good than a benevolent dictator-type attitude. I’m not just quibbling over what reasons you should have in your head for doing equally good things; I’m arguing that if you’re using these reasons for doing good things, your deeds won’t come out that good after all. How you treat a person or a thing is intimately linked to how you see the person or thing and how you see yourself in relation to the person or thing. And going back to the first issue, with breast cancer and PETA ads, the way you accomplish something can have negative side-effects, not to mention that whoever you joins your cause only because you chose sex-based advertising instead of another kind will be the kind of person who has the problem I just mentioned: they’re doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and that means, I’m arguing, they won’t do it that well. Especially if you buy the “people won’t respect women as long as they disrespect animals” argument, which should work just as well the other way around.
By the way, full disclosure – I’m definitely in favor of animal welfare but I’m not a vegetarian and basically animal rights (different from welfare) get me into a circle of logic that I can’t get back out of, so I don’t know what I think about that, but I do think I understand the arguments that animal rights activists use.
*Ironically, when talking about prostitution people do say that women’s bodies are being sold, even though they’re not, the sex that the bodies perform is. Funny.
**Unless I’m stealing this idea from Spong’s book The Sins of Scripture, and I just forgot that he had already shown me this connection.