The Persistence of Misogyny

SuffragettesIt has been fashionable for as long as I can remember for bitter males, along with a few reactionary female allies, to claim that the feminist movement not only succeeded in eliminating the traditional gender power structure, but inverted it too. Women, they complain, are now on top, occupying the positions of privilege formerly reserved for men, while the latter, thanks to affirmative action and male-bashing, are reduced to the status of persecuted victim.

Never mind the impressive blinders one must sport in order to ignore the systemic discrimination women still face, such as a persistent pay gap and chronic underrepresentation in both government and corporate hierarchies. It is not even particularly hard to find misogyny of the non-systemic, consciously promoted variety, as in this month’s horrific assassination attempt by the Taliban in Pakistan against fourteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai who dared to speak out for girls’ education, or, just this week in Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner opining that it is not “modest” and therefore forbidden for women to stand for election to the Knesset.

But these events are halfway around the world. What is happening closer to home?

Here in North America, the misogyny du jour usually finds itself not far removed from the issue of abortion. Thankfully in Canada, even with a Conservative majority, our Parliamentarians had enough sense to reject an underhanded attempt to ban abortion by redefining the point at which life begins.

In the United States, however, things are never so easy. Stephen Colbert was good enough to provide a montage of quotes from Republican politicians on the subjects of rape and abortion (click here to watch in Canada or here in the United States), which ranged from the insensitive (“even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape … it is something that God intended to happen”) to the ignorant (“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”) to the outrageously offensive (“some girls, they rape so easy”).

Then there was the case of Amanda Todd. Earlier this month, the fifteen-year-old committed suicide after sustaining years of bullying, cyberstalking, sexual harassment, and physical assault, which started when she was manipulated by a grown man into flashing her breasts on a webcam and blackmailed with the screen shot.

Todd’s death has rightly received a large amount of media coverage, but not always of a kind that puts her anguish in context. She was a victim of a porn-infused online culture that distorts the way people think about themselves and each other. In this world, men and boys feel entitled to sexual gratification, which women and girls are expected to supply without reservation.

Yes, boys are bullied too, and it is always a horrible occurrence no matter who is targeted or why. But what girls go through is pressure and torment of a qualitatively different nature. Sexist double standards are real. We must recognize them among the causal factors that killed Amanda Todd and others like her.

It is in this spirit of acknowledging the wrongs of misogyny that I end with a widely circulated video of a speech by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She may not be a perfect politician in every respect, but is it ever fun to watch her hold her head high while laying into the hypocrisy of her country’s Leader of the Opposition right to his face!

Assisted Suicide, Discrimination, and the Constitution

The Death of Socrates

Suicide is a difficult case. I do not believe that people, under most circumstances, have a moral right to unilaterally kill themselves. An individual’s life is not the sole property of the individual; it belongs also to her or his loved ones, to all who are deeply affected by such an irreversible decision.

But does that mean that suicide ought to be illegal? The state, with one-size-fits-all statutes at its disposal, is not well-suited to govern over such a heavily context-dependent arena. To do so would set a disturbing precedent of public involvement in a profoundly personal matter. This debate is largely moot here in Canada where, contrary to what many believe, there is no law preventing a person from taking her or his life. And despite my misgivings, that is probably for the best.

What is prohibited in Canada, curiously, is assisted suicide — or at least, it was.

In a case brought by Gloria Taylor, who suffers from ALS and wants the right to die at a time of her own choosing, the Supreme Court of British Columbia yesterday struck down the federal ban on physician-assisted suicide. Justice Lynn Smith gave Parliament one year to draft new legislation on the grounds that the current ban violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, not surprisingly citing the Section 7 guarantee of the right to life and liberty.

Interestingly, Smith also cites the equality rights of Section 15. The issue of assisted suicide is relevant not to those able-bodied individuals who are tragically inclined to overreact to temporary setbacks, but to the sick and the physically disabled — those who spend their lives in agony. Often in consultation with their loved ones, people in these conditions may come to the conclusion that there is only one way out — and nobody can rightfully judge them for doing so. Unfortunately, such people are frequently incapable of carrying out their free and informed decisions without a doctor’s help. For this reason, says Smith, to ban assisted suicide is to discriminate against the disabled. Furthermore, it may even perversely encourage those with deteriorating conditions to rush their suicides while they still have the ability.

A person’s death is never something to celebrate, but we should not go to despotic lengths to prevent it from coming about. Under some circumstances, it can be necessary. This does not mean that all or even most suicides are okay. But to make only assisted suicides illegal is, absurdly, to criminalize those suicides which, with the right safeguards in place, are the most morally defensible. Justice Smith has issued a ruling of compassion and respect for individual freedom, and I hope that the higher courts see things the same way on appeal.