Analysis | Unpicking the narratives: only by rejecting patriarchy and imperialism can we end war
New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Thursday, December 6, 2012 0:00 - 16 Comments
By Sofia Mason
Many of those who actively opposed the illegal invasion and military occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq became despondent when these wars went ahead anyway, in the case of Iraq, killing one million civilians. As US drone attacks continue to kill civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and as the Israeli occupation of Palestine and bombing of Gaza continues, the question of how to oppose war is ever pertinent.
Those of us who are against racism, white supremacy and imperialism while also opposing patriarchy, sexism and misogyny, might ask how we can simultaneously end these intersecting forms of oppression by unpicking the narratives that justify them, learning from historical examples and taking political action on this basis.
During colonialism, narratives of white supremacy were employed to justify the barbarity and immorality of European settlers. The cruel exploitation of the people of the majority world, and the theft of their natural resources, was re-inscribed as taking Christianity to “savages.” Current day media narratives may appear, superficially, more complex, but the same underlying assumptions remain. The invasion of Iraq, in order to steal oil, was presented as the generous extension of “democracy” to that country. Only those audaciously convinced of their innate moral superiority can justify such a huge loss of human life in the name of a failing political system that serves only to protect corporate elites, alienating the vast majority of the population (many of whom don’t vote anyway).
While the West ceaselessly attempts to assert its right to police the world on the basis of its “advanced” economy, the truth is that the wealth of Europe, Australia and the USA is entirely the result of systematic theft, genocide, slavery, incessant exploitation and perpetual war. Needless to say, the current global economic recession, driven by blind greed and desperation for short term profit, exposes how the West’s inherently flawed economy is only able to squander its vast amassed wealth leaving disparity, poverty and environmental destruction in its wake.
In addition to rejecting the racist narratives underpinning war, it is also important to examine the gendered myths surrounding conflict and male violence. The widespread nature of the violence that women face during so-called peacetime, and the fact that men’s violence against women is often exacerbated during male-dominated conflicts, has led some to conclude that there must be something innate about men’s violence. This natural aggression, so the argument goes, inevitably leads to the creation of bellicose institutions and practices such as armies and war. Men are, apparently, strong, virile, aggressive and competitive; women on the other hand, despite their conventional support for wars and their successful participation in both statist and guerilla armies, are more often associated with the home-front and peace.
Women, we are led to believe, are neither violent nor aggressive, but rather they are caring and gentle. The peace movement and anti-war activism are also often associated with women; see for example the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, the International Women’s Peace Service in Palestine, the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in the UK and Code Pink in the US.
However, feminist critiques of traditional, patriarchal gender roles have thrown the gendered nature of war into question. The crucial role of environmental factors such as cultural expectations and socio-political norms has questioned the biological justifications for the apparent differences between the behaviour of men and women.
To put it crudely, scientists have never found the part of the Y chromosome that determines that men like competitive sports and are predisposed to aggression. Similarly, there is no part of women’s genetic make-up that makes them naturally better at cleaning, cooking or caring for others. So, the gender roles that underpin patriarchy and war are socially constructed; indeed, they change over time and according to different cultural contexts. Nevertheless, those who continue to espouse patriarchal explanations will assure us that our hormones cause and explain the inequality of male and female social roles.
The fact is that the popular division of testosterone and estrogen into ‘male’ and ‘female’ hormones respectively is simplistic and misguided. Women and men produce both hormones in their adrenal glands and a biochemical reaction actually converts testosterone, which is a by-product of progesterone, into an estrogen. Perhaps most interestingly, from the age of about 7 months to 7 years, levels of testosterone are the same in boys and girls.
In other words, young boys complete seven years of indoctrination into an all-encompassing global patriarchal system that teaches them that boys and girls are completely different, before this starts to affect their testosterone levels. Our bodies and brains are profoundly affected by our social environment. Hormones levels are inhibited and suppressed, or conversely, encouraged and increased, depending on whether they receive positive or negative feedback from the social environment. Social cues affect neural activity which in turn affects the structure of the brain itself, as well as gene expression. It is impossible to ascertain how children would act if they were allowed to develop their own identities, based on personal preference, free from the restraints and expectations of patriarchal gender roles.
Under patriarchy, white men have disproportionate political, social and economic power. Violence is male-dominated just as most aspects of political and social life are controlled by white men. War propaganda in the West has often employed gendered notions of manhood to encourage young men to fight. Utilising the idea of the sacred patriarchal lineage, men are reminded that their fathers and grandfathers sacrificed and fought and if they are ‘real men’ and not ‘cowards’ then they should too. Enemies are feminised and demonised while the home front is also equated with women as young soldiers are encouraged to feel as if they are going to war to protect female relatives and loved ones.
But who benefits from this gendered war propaganda? The often under-privileged young soldiers who return from war rarely feel as if their masculinity has been validated; they often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and many are aware that they have been co-opted into participating in genocidal imperialism. As mentioned above, the inherently flawed economic and political logic of capitalism financially and ideologically depends on wars and armed conflicts to boost arms sales and to ‘divide and rule’ by rallying different groups of oppressed people into fighting against each other, while the elites divide the spoils of wars amongst themselves.
In order to prevent working-class whites from realising what they have in common with the global majority, narratives of white supremacy and the economic and socio-political benefits of being white (aka white privilege), often succeed in encouraging racism, and can also lead to an increase in the popularity of fascism.
During the 1960s, the anti-war movement united with the Black Power movement and women’s liberation; together these political forces presented a strong challenge to the white male power structure’s war machine. The Black Panthers were at the forefront of demonstrating the connection between racism, imperialism and war, and were also exceptionally effective at political organisation. They organised around the issues of housing, education and health, providing free school programmes and health clinics, whilst also defending their communities from police brutality and violence.
Simultaneously, the Black Panthers opposed acts of US imperialism and aggression in Vietnam, offering their solidarity and support to the Vietnamese people. Veterans from the anti-war movement of the 1960s have stated that a successful peace movement presents the Western imperialist status quo with an ultimatum: either you end the war or we keep building radical alternatives until this whole capitalist system is threatened.
Today, a successful peace movement must provide radical alternatives, not only to perpetual war but also to the whole corrupt, morally bankrupt political economic system that depends on patriarchy and imperialism. It is important to briefly visit the adage “No justice, No peace” here. Until all of the white male power structure’s systematic and institutional violence has been eradicated, it is morally dubious to tell those seeking to resist structural violence that they must do so “peacefully”.
As the global economic recession continues to exacerbate environmental destruction, poverty and desperation, the need for radical alternatives is always growing. Similarly, the need for community organisation and sustained political action to develop and maintain these alternatives has never been greater. In order to derail the inevitability of catastrophic climate change, we must re-organise society so that human life and the natural environment take precedence over corporate profit. Another world is definitely possible, but it’s up to us to build it.