Monday, March 9, 2009

Flashing the Feminist Finger (Shamed But Not Ashamed, Pt.3)

In my view, Sharon Bong (a feminist and literary expert) gave the best presentation of the day. It dealt with a sensitive / scandalous theme in a way which forced her listeners to question their own assumptions about what was 'basic' and 'natural'. I've no ingrained affinity for feminism, but when someone can both hint at polarities and abuses of power and challenge cherished traditional cores, my ears (naturally) perk up.
Quoting from Martha Nussbaum's Hiding From Humanity, Bong first discussed the idea of public shaming: Why do people get a 'rush' from this? Why have our communities believed in, and thus propagate, its use?

Bong then shared her personal experiences about being a prefect in school and how the school authorities publicly caned a student who littered and made her wear a 'litter-bug' plaque.

She also listed the impact of the public shaming of sex offenders: the erode human dignity, create divisions and promote branding (not in the glamourous Marketing sense but in the ugly caste-like sense) and entrench social hierarchies.
At this point, I suppose almost everyone was nodding. We were tacitly all in agreement that 'public shaming is bad'. But hang on: How many of us feel that V.K. Lingam was not shamed enough? How many of us have cracked cute one-liners about our DPM's (alleged) back-door sexual preferences (and are hoping for more lurid details)? How many of us would LOVE to see certain members of the incumbent government publicly shamed? Or can we draw a fine line between 'illegitimate shaming' (master-minded by political leaders) and 'necessary exposés' (performed by subversive writers)?

And as Andrew Khoo remarked later, why the surge of anger when Elizabeth Wong was shamed but less so in the case of Chua Soi Lek's cam-corded romp in a hotel room? The elephant(s) in the room are that i. Chua was a member of the incumbent government and Wong was from the Opposition and ii. Chua was a man, Wong a woman. (I'll be straight-up here and say that's how I felt about it emotionally. Yes, it disturbs me).

Quite unexpectedly, Bong then suggested that the phenomenon of the single women in charge of sexuality was a threat to our male-dominated society. Why? Because it subverts traditional views of family and marriage with all the phallocentric(?) biases that these institutions reflect. The sexually active single woman, in a word, was a walking flashing feminist finger to male power.

How this 'plays out' in the case of Elizabeth Wong is uncertain yet (because of that?) bizarre: Does Bong mean to say that Wong's condemnation by the BN was in part a reflection of our male-dominated society striking a blow for traditional family values? Now, isn't that exactly what the likes of Toyo were saying? But would this mean that those of us who opposed Wong's condemnation are (somehow) against traditional family values?!

The plot thickens.

Throughout it was clear that Bong was making a hard pitch for the sexually marginalised. She half-challenged Wong defenders if they would've remained so if

  • Wong's photographs were taken with her consent
  • Wong did not have a good track record as a politician and
  • Wong was gay.
This, really, was to make us question the extent of our commitment to victims of public shaming and condemnation and how this commitment was bounded by our views of what's sexually acceptable, 'normal' and so on.

The recent episodes of OuYang Wen Feng, pastor of Malaysia's first openly gay church and trans-sexual Jessie Chung could prove insightful in examining the consistency and dependencies of our judgments. How would we feel if they were to say that, despite all the condemnations they've received (especially from traditional Christians and Muslims), that they too were 'shamed but not ashamed'?

Next - Andrew Khoo (or go to start of series).


Sherman Kuek, SFO said...

I very much like what I've read here.

Good academic thinking analyses phenomena critically and does not pay very much heed to party politics.

In much of our political thinking, we have toed "government vs opposition" lines. That needs to change.

jading said...

Wow, good stuff Alwyn! You captured it and added very helpful insight of your own.. I also did not realise my govt/opposition bias vs feeling it's wrong because it's inappropriate to use shame to shape behaviour..

Alwyn said...

i think the tricky part is to toe 'good vs. evil' lines, w/out making it appear that the incumbent can do nothing right and the likes of PKR are supremely virtuous(!)

Alwyn said...

would love to hear your thoughts on the session, too, far there have been videos and even a piece in 'The Edge', surely more personal views can come to the light? ;>)

Y2K said...

Thanks Alwyn - very good record and comments. Sharon's presentation was quite dense indeed, so lots of unpacking to do. I too took note of the point about a single woman expressing her sexuality being a threat to the institution of marriage/family - certainly is very relevant to our Asian context. So in response, I would take Fr Jojo's point that we must stop letting the human body be a battleground - it's immoral!

There are so many themes we did not explore fully - "casting the first stone", the line between private and public (and our inconsistencies btw Wong/Chua shows the faultlines in our thinking), the fact that such discussions can't even take off because everything is politically charged (Datuk Seri Yuen's point).

We MUST have a follow up session to unpack the points. I'll start getting to work on it...