Measuring different kinds of harm
April 2, 2000
I wanted to place side by side, for analysis, two pieces published recently in the Barbados press. The first is an editorial titled 'Boys in peril: Squeezed by the gender [male/female] trap' in the March 12, Sunday Advocate. The second is an article headed 'A remedy for lewd lyrics,' printed in the March 12, Sunday Sun; on the top right side of the page carrying the article is a box with the lyrics of a song called 'Weeping and Moaning' by Beenie Man. I would have liked to reprint it here for the same reason it was printed in the Sunday Sun in the first place - because no paraphrase or summary could begin to show the level of viciousness (not just 'lewdness' as the title of the article suggests) of the lyrics. In fact, contempt for women is their subject.
But I couldn't place the two pieces side by side because I decided not to quote the song lyrics in full, and if I hadn't, the editor probably would have decided it for me. Let's just say that the verse printed in the Sunday Sun was about a sexual encounter in which what the man does is "ram it, stuff it, jam it till,' as the line ends, 'de gal nearly dead.' That's the most decent line.
The verse is about rape that is not understood as rape. Another song, quoted in 'Freedom of Expression and Obscene Lyrics: the Right versus the Harm' is less lewd but no less clear: "I am the girls' delivery boy.
"I want to deliver what the girls need - shi want it batta an' bruise up, swell up an' hurt up, mek shi get scared an' nervous
"She love de way how mi inflict pain, twelve inch gone an' plenty more remain." Nice boast. And you can hear it on any road any day, in the most casual of conversations.
In the one Sunday paper 'Boys in Peril'; in the other, the lyrics of a song which, let's be clear, is just one song among many - one which happens to be written here, but which, apart from style, could have been written in other places. The Caribbean is not unique in making music whose selling point is battering women and girls. What is the story of the 'Boys in Peril' editorial? It is a call to action: "When 70-75 per cent of our school population fails to obtain certification in any subject area, and when boys are predominantly the failures in that statistic, the call for remedial action must echo with irresistible force throughout the political establishment with action speedily following. Unless this is done the prospects on every front - social, spiritual, economic, the lot - for balance in this society are dangerously low."
My point in placing these two issues next to each other is not that we 'women and men' should not urgently address what is happening to boys in education. I know we should, though it is sad to hear the sense of doom expressed by newspaper columnists and writers, the man-in-the-street, administrators of the University of the West Indies and Caribbean Heads of Government about girls 'outperforming' boys, when the long years of boys 'outperforming' girls was seen as the natural order of things. As the editorial says, when 70-75 per cent of our children pass no subjects, "and when boys are predominantly the failures in that statistic" (my emphasis), we must rise up before our civilisation crumbles. If we do not, the "prospects... for balance... are dangerously low."
This is the real fear, not that boys are failing, but that boys are failing when girls are not, at least not in the same numbers. As the 'Boys-in Peril' editorial says, what we face is a "predicament... arising from... the degree of emphasis we have applied (sic) for empowering females, without due regard for serious negative fall-out where males are concerned."
Surely the deeper problem is that neither the Caribbean economy nor its education system is being reshaped and re-valued to meet the demands of our individual and collective survival in the new global economy and culture?
The starting-point for this deep analysis is co-education, introduced, it seems, to empower girls without regard to its effects on boys. I do not know whether co-education is a good or bad thing. But I know a bad argument when I see one. Co-education, the argument goes in the same editorial, has brought a precipitate decline in male sports because of the absence of male teachers and the inability or unwillingness of female teachers to take up the slack. Boys are unwilling to engage in athletic pursuits which produce physical effects which embarrass them in the presence of girls. Nothing about the broader picture. Why not ask why more men who are qualified to train as teachers have no interest in being teachers? What happens to jobs that are low-valued and low-waged? Whose jobs are these, as of right? What does the under-valuing and underpaying of teachers say about our society?
Other questions. Why those girls who fail to pass any subjects fail - fewer in numbers than the boys, yes, but too many. What the failure of 70-75 per cent of students of whatever sex says about our schools.
Surely the deeper problem is that neither the Caribbean economy nor its education system is being reshaped and re-valued to meet the demands of our individual and collective survival in the new global economy and culture? And since every development has a gender dimension, what is 'saving' girls - i.e., making them flounder less in the developing free-for-all - is that they are still (as they have always been) more carefully raised, more guarded, more trained, nurtured and policed to non-rebellion. And as they grow old enough, what is 'saving' them is their greater and more direct responsibility for children. Ask young women in a sewing class why they are in a sewing class and for many, it is to enable themselves to earn to look after their children - for far too many, it is to enable themselves to support their children alone.
For some others, who have husbands who are breadwinners and buyers, the taking of the sewing class (or the cake decorating, flower arranging or other class) is to be enable them to improve life in the home. Girls are still raised to more practical dreams.
I read an interesting paper about UWI the other day. The author called it 'Fictions of Citizenship.' It talked about two realities. One reality was that women at the University were 'outperforming' men, in numbers and passes. The other was that the area in which the campus is situated had been experiencing many incidents of sexual abuse, including stalking, the kind of abuse that made female students live in fear. The two realities were not cause and effect; women living in the same area who were not students also experienced the abuse. What struck the author of the paper was that, for many, the women's 'outperformance' of the men in University study was the highest example they could find of marginalisation of people of one sex by people of the other.
To end where I started, with the lyrics of 'Weeping and Moaning': "Ram it, stuff it, jam it," say the lyrics, expressing something endemic to our culture. Girls and boys, women and men dance to this music, and sing along. But outside of women's pages or magazines I don't know that I have ever read a call to action against the imbalance of power and respect which produces lyrics like these, and which they in turn produce - a call to action not against 'lewdness' or even violence, but against all that permits a brutal and depraved violence to be routine, and routinely-ignored.