A few weeks ago I was stirred by the following image, which has been doing the rounds on Facebook:
For some audiences the message presented by the above image will strike a chord. To others it will seem very questionable. Personally, it got me thinking about the amount of politically loaded truth claims we share and observe on social media daily.
Messages such as the one presented above assign the good to one camp and the bad to the Other in an attempt to reduce complexity into a binary, which may then be identified with politically. In this sense such messages represent a political technique which may fairly be called propaganda, that is: “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view” (thanks Google dictionary).
The proliferation of such propaganda is justified by an appeal to the simplicity of the message, and thus to a perceived (or projected, or internalised) lack of thoughtfulness (or time to think) on the part of the audience. Such simplicity plays a double role: 1) It provides the audience with easily memorable sound-bites which may be consumed and then regurgitated with minimal effort, thereby helping to spread the message; 2) If need be, it allows for a shifting of the goal-posts, whereby the shortcomings of the message can be shifted onto the simplicities of the sound-bite (which may then be defended on grounds of being a sound-bite).
For instance, in the above image patriarchy is presented as the common-enemy, which is to blame for all the bad things. The nature of patriarchy is not touched on, other than in terms of its badness. Likewise, just how the patriarchy goes about “saying” the things that it supposedly “says” is left to the imagination. In either case, what the patriarchy is saying is definitive and direct: “men are stupid”, etc. Feminism is presented in opposition to the common-enemy, as a potential solution for the bad things and promoter of good things. An interesting note with this example is that, while the image is most certainly saying something, the message is distanced from feminism itself, which (unlike patriarchy) merely “holds” rather ambiguous and positive beliefs and expectations (this distancing can also be observed in the image bellow).
At this point it is worth stressing that a message will generally only appear as blatant propaganda to the eyes of its critics, wily developers, and less-partial-much-more-cautious readers. The rest of us are more forgiving. On this count one need only replace the nouns in the message with alternatives to see whether the same effects listed above are achieved. For instance, it is easy to imagine the word patriarchy being replaced with other words: “It is religion which says men are stupid…” “It’s Darwinism that says men have animalistic instincts…” “It’s capitalism that says men can only be attracted to certain qualities…” Likewise, feminism can be replaced with other words, be they to do with some other religion, political organisation, or figurehead: “Shia LeBeouf holds that men are capable of more – are more than that”. In every case and no matter the content, I (perhaps naïvely) hope that thoughtfulness and discussion will be encouraged, and the reactionary responses which would curb such engagement discouraged. In other words, I want to stress that the endorsement and sharing of such propaganda is not limited to any particular group – I’m sure that those of you with a wide social network on Facebook will see many other examples of such material before the week is through.
However, I do think an empirical point can be made for some groups operating across different mediums, regions, and domains making more use of such techniques at different times than others. In regard to my own experiences as a Western Australian academic with a social network comprised mainly of working class and educated people located in the U.K and Australia, the examples which I have been seeing the most are to do with Islam as the common-enemy and Australian values as the potential solution (see below), and (to a much greater extent) material such as that presented in image included at the top of this post.
For those living in different contexts I’d be interested to hear of your own exposure to and observations of such social artifacts!
Now! With all this talk of engagement, I thought I’d share my contribution to a discussion on patriarchy, which took place around the time that I first came across the image featured at the top of this post. The discussion followed a provocative episode of Triple J’s radio show “Hack”, and was to do with the perceived unwillingness for both feminists and victims to talk about domestic violence perpetrated against men. What follows is my response to the following question, in which I try to wrap my head around and express my thoughts on the notion of patriarchy as it is so often used by the community I am embedded in:
Q. “But wait, don’t you think it’s part of patriarchal discourse not to talk about violence against men, not just part of feminist discourse?”
A. “That’s a good question! I’m going to number this, as it might be a few blocks:
- I don’t think of either the words ‘discourse’ or ‘patriarchy’ as being adjectives that can be applied to everything. In other words, I don’t think that any and every event can be looked at and convincingly brought under the heading of a single discourse or ‘patriarchy’. (I understand that ‘patriarchy’ can be used to talk about less grand things, like the oldest son inheriting the land and so on, though this anthropological point is clearly not what many of those who now use the term are getting at).
- This is because discourses are (among other things) about distinctions (that is, distinguishing ‘this’ from ‘that’). If there were: 1) no limits to its application, or 2) no limit on how it could be reconceptualised in order to apply to any situation, then it would no longer mean anything to me, other than perhaps being a grand narrative that I’ll never ever be able to get my head around (though I understand that in such instances people can be encouraged or pressured into acting as if such notions were meaningful nonetheless – though this in itself is not enough to imbue something with meaning)
- That said I understand that ‘patriarchy’ is generally used to describe a ‘social structure’/’system’ – however I often think that these words are rarely understood as I understand it (though I’ll continue treating them as interchangeable in order to avoid going too far down the lane of Systems Theory). For instance, if, on the one hand, the intention is to refer to patriarchy as being ‘structural’ then this would describe a quality of a structure, rather than a whole social structure. For instance, if I refer to theocracy as a social structure, then particular traditions or religious attitudes within that theocracy would be structural, rather than the whole social structure. To refer to the structural components as the whole social structure would be akin to referring to a cog as a machine, a tree as an ecosystem, or a part as an apparatus (granted, such comparisons are here only intended to engage the imagination).
- With this in mind, even if ‘patriarchy’ was seen as the ‘whole social structure’ it must still have limits. For instance, there are elements of the economy or the legal system or the scientific enterprise that are distinct from religion. Thus even in a theocratic system ‘theocracy’ wouldn’t be the ‘whole social structure’, but rather one particularly influential (and indeed, in respect to itself, ‘whole’) social structure among many. In a similar fashion, to see the notion of patriarchy as referring to a ‘whole social structure’ that can be applied without limit as a grand account for every other ‘whole social structure’ would lead us back to points 1 and 2.
- That said if, instead being a structure, ‘patriarchy’ is meant to refer to a discourse, then I can understand why both the feminist and patriarchy discourse, as well as many other discourses, can frame and reveal and omit and render the same event in different ways. Thus talking about/not talking about violence can be ‘a part of’ these two discourses, plus a religious one, plus a psychological one, and so on. However, I think there should be limits to this too, because otherwise you could have replaced the word ‘patriarchy’ with any of these other discourse in order to answer the question “is violence a part of the patriarchy discourse?” with an honest though unsophisticated “yes”.
- However (and this would probably make a few people go red in the face), I don’t really recognise ‘patriarchy’ as a discourse. This is because, so far as I know, I don’t frame etc. all the things I come across or think or do in terms of patriarchy, nor can I try to in a meaningful way. In contrast, the feminist discourse has an intellectual history and set of coherent assumptions, accompanied by concepts and notions which feminists have worked at, or which have developed over time out of wider contingencies. The same goes for the biomedical discourse, or a religious discourse, or scientific discourse, and so on.
- Even with all their mysteries in toe, the none-deliberate and contingent parts of discourses can work to frame, reveal and hide aspects of the world in a way that doesn’t violate the points I’ve so far raised. For instance, particular understandings of, say, masculinity weren’t all penned out deliberately, but developed over time and across a range of events. Yet it is still very clear that these contingencies have become part of a wider and coherent discourse to do with masculinity. In this sense many of the distinct parts of ‘the masculine’ may come into the purview of ‘patriarchy’. However, without an ample capacity for charisma on the part of the speaker, attempts to ascribe ‘masculine characteristics’ to whole social systems (as patriarchy often supposedly does) are often far from convincing.
- (This is more of an anecdotal point, and is almost certainly misplaced.) If anything, the only time I see the term patriarchy being use in any of the senses mentioned from points 1-7 is in the feminist discourse. Just the other day I saw a photo posted saying something along the lines of “it’s the patriarchy which tells boys that they’re useless, feminism tells them that they’re worth something”. This sounds like an extreme example, but I see such things every week posted by dozens of people. I see it too in feminist literature and lectures and so on, though rarely elsewhere. At times it’s as if what patriarchy is to feminism is comparable to what sin is to religion, the Other is to nationalism, or madness is to the psychosciences. In other words, I only ever experience patriarchy as it is revealed to me by the feminist discourse. In this sense, it often seems to me that patriarchy is a part of the feminist discourse. Please note! This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! For instance, alienation (which is a bad thing, though awesome concept) can be said to be a part of Marxist discourse, much to its merit.
- (last one!) If the response to all of this is that I cannot ‘see’ patriarchy as it is often meant by some of the terms users, or that I’m otherwise incapable of ‘understanding’ it because I am too deeply embedded in it, then my response could be even longer than this one.”
I know there will be many problems with my reasoning, so please feel free to engage. Ideas for sound-bites are especially welcome.