Biopolitics: Regulation & Discipline in Schools

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The following is a short piece I wrote in response to (philosopher) Michel Foucault’s theory of biopower and biopolitics as a form of control and discipline in modern states (for one of my English seminars). I thought it would be interesting to share it here too.

In “Society Must Be Defended”, Michel Foucault offers two examples where bio-politics and discipline intersect. One such intersection of mechanisms of power to discipline and regulate bodies is through codes of conduct in schools. In this piece, I will discuss how these mechanisms act within the framework of systemic sexism towards girls by exercising control over their bodies in order to regulate and discipline/control them.

Firstly, regulatory mechanisms are implemented explicitly through the “dos and don’ts” of uniform. While, on the surface, these rules are said to ensure discipline among learners, in the case of girls they play a much bigger and more complex role. The regulation of dresses and skirts in order to keep them at an acceptable length, the prescribed hair and nail lengths, the prohibition of see-though shirts and revealing of shoulders etc. are all rules which are often tied to a broader goal to retain and enforce a particular idea of “respectability”. In the school context, what is deemed appropriate is often closely tied to a perception of what makes one respectable, and by extension what is viewed as professional even in the work-place. These rules are masked as efforts to de-sexualise the bodies of girls – by limiting the likelihood that male staff and learners will be distracted by their bodies as a result of a skirt too short, lips too glossy, or hair too stylish.

Although the belief is that by de-sexualising girls’ bodies, sexual thoughts or urges will be suppressed (which is a mechanism of biopower through controlling people’s sexuality and urges), an inverse effect is also induced. Not only does this contribute to the perpetuation of the primitive anecdote of men as uncontrollable, sexual beings and womxn as the asexual, docile counterparts whose responsibility it is to provide as little temptation for men as possible, this creates a taboo of female sexuality and its expression.

These practices contribute to an obsession with policing girls’ and womxn’s bodies which begins at a young age, whereby society continuously scrutinises the respectability of womxn, often tying clothing to morality or lack thereof. This makes society a kind of panopticon-like body which through constant surveillance and womxn’s consequent awareness of this gaze, ensures that womxn conform to the expected dress codes and behaviour as prescribed by the norms.

On the other hand, the general taboo of sexual health/sexuality education is one of the most prominent manifestations of biopower – the exercise of control over individuals and populations through strict regulatory mechanisms of the biological  (controlling birth, the quality of life, death, sexuality and reproduction). A common example of this kind of control in history could be political regimes which placed restrictions on the number of children one could have and how the womxn of those families were depicted in a particular light depending on what that political regime sought to achieve.

For example the Nazi regime depicted the (Aryan) womxn who bore many children as saintly because of the objective of creating the Aryan race, whereas womxn who had more than one child under  China’s one-child policy were depicted in a completely different light because of the different political aims of the regime. In schools, however, the obsession continues to be the desexualising of adolescents and the fixated on monitoring how they use their bodies. The obvious result then follows – a fixation on sexual exploration and rebellion is then bred which is often done irresponsibly due to the lack of sufficient knowledge about sex.

Many school rules aim to suppress any expression of individuality by establishing a homogenous identity for learners and this also a means to assimilate them into a single body which is much easier to control than a collective of individuals. Adolescents are typically undergoing a stage of self-discovery and personal expression through one’s identity is a way in which one can express rebellion or conformity. Be it through signature jewellery, tattoos, unnatural hair colours, painted nails or unusual hairdos these are all ways in which young people can express their psychological and emotional state-of-mind and make statements to those around them. Uniform which sets such strict regulations, limits and represses identity which could indicate a deviation from the generally accepted norms and values prescribed by the authority.

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Political correctness – tyranny in disguise?

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Many people in the world view political correctness as a new form of tyranny in disguise. “People are just way too sensitive these days. We can’t say anything without liberals screaming that you’re racist or sexist or homophobic. Really, whatever happened to free speech?” These are often the lines of defence for many of those who reject the use of political correct language. Here are some of my responses to these sentiments…

Before I respond to direct statements that people make about political correctness, I want to clarify some things about the functions and importance of language. While language has many functions, the two important functions I want to draw attention to are the descriptive and prescriptive ones.

Language is descriptive in the sense that it expresses what is in the world – what we see. smell, taste, feel and experience. When one says “it is cold” or “the United States of America is the most powerful country in the world”, one is describing the state of affairs in the world. These descriptions can either be true or false because we describe things based on our perceptions. These individual perceptions differ because they are informed by the various experiences, values and norms into which we are socialised.

The second function which is prescriptive is one through which underlying assumptions imply the normative nature of certain things and the foreignness of others and the same goes for prescribing what is acceptable or not. An example where language does this is when one says “The dean of students will be coming by tomorrow to address you, so make sure you look presentable and that you’re in top form.” Automatically, people will know to dress formally, to not be intoxicated, to turn their phones off. While no specific instructions were given, the words “presentable” meant formal wear and not jeans or leggings; by coming sober and turning phones off this implies that these are actions which are associated with being in “top form” aka respectful and so without saying so explicitly, there were already underlying assumptions which came up.

1. What’s the point of substituting one word for another. If one hates black people and gays then changing the word for them doesn’t change the feeling towards them?

As indicated above, the words we use for certain things reflect the attitudes we have about them. The words we use publically and freely, without fear of being reprimanded, reflect that the attitudes that underly those subjects of those words are acceptable. Those words come with assumptions which the general public views as justified, which is the reason that there will be no backlash for using them publically. So words which have been given a derrogatory status, are words whose underlying assumptions are rejected or shunned by the society or people to which they are directed.

In other words, to permit the usage of particular words is to imply a level of acceptability of the undertones they carry and in the case of derrogatory terms, to permit them is to sanction those “othering” and degrading undertones. Lanaguage directly gives those sentiments legitimacy.  One probably feels its okay to say a particular word because those feelings are shared or unchallenged, which allows those feelings to exist unchecked.

2. Political correctness is one of the symptoms of the ever-increasing intolerence. Freedom of expression is blatantly stifled by political correctness.

If we buy the argument that language is reflective of the common/ dominant values we have in society e.g. when we say “Look respectable” and the response is to  wear less revealing clothing, we accept that that reflects the dominant belief that nudity shows lack of respect either for oneself or for others and to cover oneself makes one respect-worthy (respectability politics post coming soon). The key phrase here is ‘dominant values and beliefs’. With anything that is dominant there are outliers, the inferior and/or marginalised… In a world where there is a dominant religion, race, nationality, sex, gender, conformity to gender constructs, ideal of beauty etc. there is bound to be outliers and often these outliers are treated as unfamiliar and therefore undesirable. This is how derrogatory words come into existence. The negative connotations and demeaning assumptions of words are santioned by the acceptance of those feelings which are shared by the dominant groups.

Within the dominant group however, because these words represent shared preceptions about the subjects, they are normalised and made acceptable. The acceptibilty of these words to describe outliers relies in the consensus of the dominant group who give the words their legitimacy. Ultimately, words are dependent on the power of the dominant group. Once this power dynamic shifts – which is what is happening in society with the quest and attainment of equal rights – the unanimous consensus declines because there are people who do not accept those assumptions and underlying values.

This reclamation of agency by people who previously did not have it means that certain privileges from the previous dominant group (which existed at the expense of the minority/marginalised) will be challenged, and as we know it, the loss of unrightful privilege is often equated to the loss of rights or freedoms of previously dominants, since the concept of restrictions is unfamiliar to them.

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And this is why you can’t say the words you feel you should have the right to offend people with.

Constructivism in Identity

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They said, “Once you learn to speak, you’ll finally be able to express yourself and your personality… now say ‘MAMA'”

And so I spoke. But I was told about good words & bad words. I was told to laugh much softer because I’m not a boy.

They said, “Once you get to high school, you’ll really get to be yourself. The rules there aren’t like these baby rules we have in primary school.”

And so I went. But I was told what length of my skirt, what width of my shirt strap is appropriate or respectable. They told me that the twisted locks I wanted in my hair were “dreadful” and that they were “hard to maintain & manage”. I wanted to read more and spend less time on the devastating math which I would never enjoy or excel at but they told that that wasn’t what my country needed.

They said, “Find a woman you relate with from the Bible and come back next week to tell us about why you feel she is the Biblical version of you” – and to the boys, their Biblical men versions.

But I couldn’t relate with any – I hardly even knew any because when else were women in the Bible referred to as role models except for when the women and little girls to refer to in order to improve themselves? But we all had to aspire to be like Job and Jesus and Noah and Moses and Isaac and Abel and the other Joseph and Paul and Peter and and and.

Then they said, “When you get to university you’ll find your true self. You can rebrand & reinvent yourself.”

But when I arrived I was given the identity of a flower. Beautiful. Graceful. Smart but Docile. But flowers can never exist for themselves – they exist to be picked, to be enjoyed by someone else. To be sniffed and marvelled at by someone else. The value of a flower is not intrinsic, it comes from the value which its observer places on it. And I was meant to be grateful if I was picked. Until I realised that I wouldn’t be picked – at least not in this garden. My skin colour, the coils in my hair, the bulges on my hips and flare of my nostrils made me the thorny kind of flower that didn’t get picked. I was hurt by not being the flower the pickers wanted…until I realised what trash flower pickers were. Flower pickers do not see flowers for the beauty they possess or their functional properties but for how they will improve the picker’s living room view or the aroma in their homes. Or in my case, flower pickers were egotistical, misogynistic, racist, classist and shallow.

They said, “Once you leave university and have your own family, you’ll completely be your own person.”

LOL.

 

 

“If you love a flower, don’t pick it up.
Because if you pick it up it dies and it ceases to be what you love.
So if you love a flower, let it be.
Love is not about possession.
Love is about appreciation.” – Osho

Vetkoeks in the Sun

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A few months back in my English Literature class, we did a quick writing exercise. Under strict time constraints, we had to write the first thing that came to mind. We could then share our writing with the class. After which, we were given some more time to develop our “brain-dumps”. I chose to not share my piece, not for any particular reason, but I jut did not. So folded this piece of paper and chucked it into my bag. I stumbled upon this paper under my bed today and decided I would like to share it after all. Perhaps I can create a series of random pieces I write now and then, while passing time. I hope you like it, I do.

Part 1

Nosi was tired. She was sitting in the third seat, second row from the front, of her Politics lecture hall, trying hard to keep her head from tilting while she dozed. She was exhausted from weeks and weeks of the routine of going to lectures, spitting out essays, taking tests, spitting out assignments, reading article after article, spitting out summaries…  “. Either this or we’ll be flipping burgers of a griller at Burger King”, her friends often joke in a half-hearted attempt to encourage her. Why did her brain do that? She scoffed, annoyed at her sudden craving for a greasy, burger filled with abominations greater-than-which-nothing-can-be-imagined, accompanied by suspiciously tasty chips on the side.

Part 2

I’m quite exhausted.

I’m not 8-5 grind, sweating on the side of the road, working at a construction site – tired. Neither am I 15-25 years spent within the same bland walls of a prison cell doing nothing but the same old thing – tired. I’m not even waking up five times at night to change my newborn’s diaper, breastfeed and rock her back to sleep – tired.

But I sure am tired.

I’m university student tired. Clean hands tired. Well-fed tired. Clothed-tired. But my brain is fried. Not tempura-fried. But over-greased with too many academic papers, viciously peppered with contradicting ever-changing realities and too many clashing flavours of theories that never quite blend… It is dipped in this and that batter of literature and somehow I’m made to believe that I’m seasoning, seasoned, cultured…better, better off?

 

 

 

On street-violence on the bodies of womxn

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I watched a movie about domestic abuse today and cried.

Before I cried, I scorned the victim for her stupidity and recklessness.

I took part in the culture of victim-blaming because she had stayed with an abusive lover after he beat her again and again.

I blamed her for being stupid enough to believe that he would change, that she could change him and that he needed her to stay so that he could get help.

I was so frustrated that I nearly cried for her daughter for having such a sorry excuse for a mother and cursed the woman who raised her mother to become that way.

I cried because I realised in those last few scenes, the complete helplessness of women all over the world in the same situation, and worse.

I cried because of the inextricable power that men hold over us…in Tabuk, in Brooklyn, in New Delhi, in Moscow, in Kigali, in Las Vegas, in Johannesburg…

I cried because for all my radical feminism’s worth, earlier that day, as I walked alone through the streets of Johannesburg in a mini skirt, I was equally powerless.

For all my notions of equality and ‘feminism for men’ that I believe in, I was paralysed by the same helplessness of the protagonist in the film.

As I walked past catcalls, grimy hands squeezing my shoulder, slut-shaming remarks & asking why I wasn’t dressed and how they wanted to see my private parts, my body did not belong to me.

Like, the victim of domestic abuse where neighbours draw their curtains, I was trapped in a world where men can do as they please with my body and by-passers will mind their own business.

They will tell us it’s our fault, and tell us what to wear, tell us how we should have responded and how stupid we were…

They will, like I was, become desensitised to our pain – seeing it as punishment for being weak or stubborn and say, “Well if only you had listened when we said…”

They will be friendly, they will call themselves feminists, they will be teachers, family, preachers, leaders…they will all love us.

But they will all remain trapped in a system that condemns & shames the victims and does everything else before changing their attitude towards the perpetrator and the crime.

Still relevant: http://www.thefrisky.com/2014-08-12/7-responses-to-mansplanations-about-street-harassment/

 

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Because millions of men – even some I know – believe that she’s asking for it.

 

5 Things I’ve learnt from being a Kpop Fan

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Korean pop culture aka the “Hallyu” has spread and increased exponentially over the past few years, gaining attention not only in South Korea but all over Asia and the world. Given the growth of its popularity,  there has also been a growth in the international fanbase of Korean creative art including Kdramas, Kpop, Khiphop and Korean Variety shows. Kpop fans also make up quite a large portion of ‘netizens’ as the internet has become one of the most popular tools for interactions among fans. Kpop fans are drawn into the tide by different things varying from music bands, Korean vloggers, international vloggers based/teaching/visiting Korea, dramas etc. I, for one, having given into the Hallyu just last year, have learned so much from this experience and new culture which I would like to share.

  1. Clash of the Cultures

The first interesting thing I realised as I watched Kdramas was the fans who often got into arguments about what kind of values were represented by the characters. Many international fans complained about the unrealistic PG13 chemistry between love interests while many Asians insisted that this is what is realistic and culturally acceptable for them. On the other hand, music fans also engaged in arguments about whether or not certain idols (Korean word for celebrities) were too raunchy or sexual in their videos, and whether or not lyrics were too bland or vulgar. Often, we make generalisations, at least based on my interactions, such as “It’s 2016, I can and will wear whatever I want” or “argh, modesty is so old-fashioned” but these conversations (also known as comment section wars) showed me just what different values we have because of our various upbringings and the different societies we’re socialised into. This certainly opens one’s eyes to cultural differences & internal prejudices and teaches a thing or two about assuming that the rest of world has undergone and holds the same cultural consciousness that we have.

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Singers such as GAIN in “Paradise Lost” (above) are often the subject of many debates about their sexy and “western-like” image.

2. Clashes of fandoms

In Korea, many music fans on the internet are organised into fandoms. If this sounds childish and foreign – think of the Beyhive (Beyonce’s fandom). Now imagine hundreds of bands that each their own equivalent of a Beyhive, who live on the web and make it a personal mandate to protect and uphold the dignity and image of their idol(s). I learned that fandoms are not always hormone-crazed adolescents who have nothing better to do, but they also consist of people in their 20s and even 30s from all walks of life who simply appreciate, admire and support the hard work and creativity of Korean artists. Being a Kpop star, I realised, is extremely demanding and competitive because there are simply SO many other people who share the same dream and are equally or more talented than the other.  On the downside, some people take this too seriously and there can also be a lot of hate among netizens regarding certain stars and they are known antifans. Antifans can terrorise actors and musicians to the point of suicide, assaults, stalking and other obsessive behaviour.  Such events have shown me that some people really just take celebrities too seriously and forget that they are human too – a fact which not only Korean fans seem oblivious to. You can read more about this in the article below.

http://www.allkpop.com/article/2015/07/10-chilling-instances-of-anti-fans-attacks

3. We’re more similar than we think

Discovering the similarities among Kpop fans has probably been one of the best things I have learned. I found this out from meeting two other Kpop fans on campus at Stellenbosch University (the last place I would have thought I would find fellow Hallyu fans). The connection is instant, almost like finding fellow survivors in an post-apocalyptic world. There is incessant chatter and babbling about what actors and musicians each have seen and like, which bands, concerts, newest debuting artists, upcoming dramas and tours…etc. until later when the excitement dies down, maybe, they might eventually exchange names and other personal details. One common thread incident which united more international Kpop fans was the fact that while the rest of the world was recovering from Beyonce and Drake’s surprise album drops, the Kpop world was only just entering a frenzy around BTS’s (Bangtan Boys) and the upcoming Monsta X  albums. In our everyday lives, we international fans are often isolated from other Kpop fans and have very few people to share our excitement with – so our virtual existence on the web is validating. Seeing the reactions of various fans from around the world, sharing in your excitement is one of the most thrilling experiences.

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The picture above shows numerous  kpop reaction videos from people all over the world. Videos of Koreans reacting to international music, cultures and trends have also increased.

4. Learning platforms for cultural exchange

The diverse cultural backgrounds of fans has given way for conversations around sensitivity to arise. Many Asian countries do not see too much cultural/racial diversity and as a result, there have been one too many incidents of idols behaving insensitively and being called out on their behaviour. Because Kpop has brought so many different cultures together, what people would have previously regarded as acceptable can now be put in the spotlight, open for debate and learning can take place. The reality is that many Koreans seldom see or even interact with foreigners and international fans do not have many opportunities to interact with Asians, let alone, Koreans. I for one, used to have the “all Asians look the same syndrome” before watching Kdramas and listening to Korean music. Today, however, my ability to identify different singers, rappers and actors has improved so much and I have realised that it all really comes down to exposure. We see Asians as “all the same” because we have very limited exposure to diverse Asian groups and vice versa. A nuber of Asian people have also claimed to truggle to differentiate white people too as shown in the video below.

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Worldwide-famous rapper, GDragon came under a lot of fire from international fans about his blackface incident, stirring a racial-sensitivity consciousness throughout Korea.

5. Downside (Appreciation vs Appropriation/Exoticising)

Where there’s a growth in the fascination for a certain foreign culture or aspects of it from the outside, there is always a possibility of insensitivity. Such is the case with K-entertainment. Koreaboos is the term given to”someone obsessed with kpop and a small aspect of Korea to the extent of it becoming viewed as downright creepy” as explained by one blogger. The problem with Koreaboos is s that “most of their knowledge is based on Korean pop culture in the form of k-pop, k-dramas and k-variety; and while these mediums do give a glimpse into the Korean zeitgeist, one must bear in mind that while popular culture reflects the wider issues a society faces, they are not always the best source of information and not to be treated as gospel truths when in fact they are sorely misinformed/skewed”.

At first, I viewed this as xenophobic or possessive complex from Koreans since I had witnessed the kind of attachments people have to their culture, until I recalled similar  relatable experiences.  In New York,  a man said to me in a conversation, “Oh wow, you’re from Africa?! I love Mandela! God Mandela is the best!” and other oblivious perpetrators had said things like, “Wow, Africa? Geez, I loved The Lion King. I haven’t been on a safari though but I would love to” and parted with a “Nice meeting you, man. God bless. Hakuna matada!”Then it made perfect sense. I remembered a particular Buzzfeed video about Indians who hated it when people always mentioned that they absolutellove Shahrukh Khan and chai tea or how much they cried through Slumdog Millionaire. In short, much like with any other culture, there is a very thin line between appreciating a culture and being ignorant and insensitive in how you express this appreciation.

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Blessers and Blessees in South Africa

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Sugar daddies have existed for as long as I can remember. These sugar daddy-baby relationships have been described in various ways to depict the women and men involved in different lights.  What has happened in South Africa recently is the spike in the trendiness of sugar daddies who have now been renamed “Blessers” as a result of the increase in the trend of young women on Instagram who share pictures of their luxurious lifestyles often captioned #blessed. I have seen numerous local documentaries which have sought to explain this phenomenon and give better insight to those who may not know the detailed dynamics of these relationships and these have been met with numerous responses.

  1. Holy-water throwers

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The holy-water thrower response is the most common response to the blesser/blessee issue and often every other controversial topic in society. This response usually goes along the lines of “only God can truly save them” or “they are allowing the devil to use them” which as well-meaning as one can assume it is, it can – and often does – come across as condescending and ‘othering’. This response imposes a Christian-normative view of ethics which denounces everything that is forbidden in the Bible as evil and to be treated as such. When people are treated as evil in situations where there is explicit exploitation, this view fails to recognise the victimisation of people. Individual contexts and circumstances are either completely ignored or oversimplified, which makes offering help for those who need it impossible. Another problem with Christian-normative criticisms is the inconsistency of what people choose to view as downright evil. This refers to the hundreds if not thousands of sins listed as abominable in the Bible however, the Christians who are active shamers of others, engage in other sins of their own which they treat much differently or are more lenient with interpretation of rules which address them.

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Before launching into the response of sex-positive feminists on this topic I’ll begin by outlining what exactly they are and how they differ from traditional feminists. Sex-positive feminists  “believe that representations of women in sexual contexts do not always and/or necessarily connote the exploitation of women but are an example of their liberty and freedom to express themselves”. This response has shifted the focus of the question of morality and self-respect of those who choose to be in these relationships. Given the discriminatory culture towards women in the world, naturally, those who are shamed in blesser/blessee relationships are not the men who take advantage of vulnerable (where applicable) young women but rather the women, for their “lack of self-respect” and “low self-esteem”. Sex-positive feminists have highlighted the agency of women who choose the values they will uphold and base their relationships on their chosen values rather than those imposed by society. They also address generalisations such as women having to aspire to being “marriage material”, modest or having to prefer specific types of men. My interpretation of this response is that it does not deny the prevalent power-imbalance in these relationships which makes exploitation of women widespread but that it rejects the assumption that ALL women who receive money and luxurious gifts in exchange for sex are victims or “prostitutes”. For example young, educated women who view sex as a small price to pay for having one pay for their tuition and/or other expenses. A possible criticism to this approach, however, is where does one draw the line between owning one’s sexuality and letting others exploit it.

3. Traditional feminists

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The response from traditional feminists is one which is perhaps the least discussed of the three in this matter. In this view, the relationship between blessers and blessees is centred on the 50/50 equality model and where there is a slight balance in the favour of the man (in whatever way) the relationship cannot be viewed as mutually beneficial. In the event where the recepient of the gifts and money feels that he/she is fully aware of the situation and its dynamics or simply “knows better” and still chooses to engage in the relationship, the consent is not really valid because there isn’t fair footing to begin with. Because the woman is in a position of needing money, or she would not otherwise view her relationship with the blesser in the same light, she is already in a vulnerable position. This response is based on the concession that these relationships are generally undesirable and were it not for the lack of financial means, women would not get into such relationships to begin with but the men obviously would because it is ideal for them. A criticism to this is that the lack of financial means drives people to do various things that, were it not for money, they wouldn’t do otherwise – such as a 9 to 5 job, and a sexual relationship with someone who isn’t one’s ideal type can be regarded similarly.The only difference is the stigma attached to the sexual autonomy of women, transactional relationships, and other value projections from society.