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In Custom and In Ceremony

It was one week ago that an advice column in Slate provided fuel sufficient to burn its witch-author, online Emily Yoffe. We cannot be sure if it was Yoffe or her editors that piled these dry sticks in the town square of Opinion. We can be certain that nothing ignites a live body on the internet so well as the contention, diabetes and pregnancy Women Ask For It.

Let’s leave the analysis of Yoffe’s middleweight reasoning to others for the moment and let it be plainly said: rape victims are never complicit in the violence done to them. This fact remains unchanged by cocktails, more about uncomfortable footwear and/or terrible opinion writing. That there is a question that anybody “asks” to be raped is peculiar and illogical. Rape, by its definition, is unasked-for and any other perspective is insanity.  I don’t even know why this piece was written. Silly me. Yes. I do. Clicks.

Clicks it got. Rage ricocheted around the toilet-bowl of the internet like the ill-formed waste of a dreadful repast. An incontinent feminism bubbled in the cistern of stupidity and depths remained unplumbed as the same response resurfaced one thousand times.

As The Atlantic had it, “there’s one thing that’s more common than alcohol when it comes to rapes. That would be rapists.” HuffPo UK said, “the only factor that makes people vulnerable to rape is being in the presence of a rapist.” Australian site The Daily Life offered, “The only thing common to experiences of rape is the presence of a rapist.”

If we don’t count an aversion to reason, the only thing common to contemporary liberal feminism is everything.  The responses—upon which Yoffe and her literary agent were likely depending—did not change.  You’d think at least one courageous writer would have countered with a piece called “If You Want To Avoid Rape, Don’t Get Married”, but instead we read iterations of an argument whose value, I think, should be questioned.

Let me explain. Or, you know. Don’t. Just take to social media and call me a “rape apologist” before reading. Because that sort of behaviour always advances thought.

There are currently several feminist writers who believe in a system of influence called “rape culture” and just as many who believe that urgent reprogramming of humans is needed to stop the crime of rape. In a curious remake of seventies radical feminism, the idea that patriarchy is less a way of reproducing social class and more of an actual War on Women has emerged. There is a War on Women and rape is its primary weapon and “MSM” (mainstream media) is its agitprop.

Such theory as introduced by Dworkin, Mackinnon and others never sat well with me when I first read it as a teen and still fails to move me.  This is chiefly because I believe most people are decent and know that rape, and all forms of violence, are wrong.  In my country, Australia, all States and Territories had passed legislation by 1981 to ensure the “marital exemption” would never protect a rapist from prosecution and our local media is full of advocates—notably Derryn Hinch—who believe that rape is a crime unmatched in its evil by any other.

In Australia, we host Solve Your Own Murder parties as a form of entertainment.  We do not, to the best of my knowledge, spend our leisure hours with Solve Your Own Rape.

Look.  My point is everyone with an ounce of sense thinks rape is bad.  No one (reasonable) blames victims.  The only people, apart from rapists, who publicly blame victims do so to invite the caffeinated response of a feminist klatch.  These paint-by-numbers articles about “slut-shaming” and “victim-blaming” are guaranteed to link to the offending statement frequently enough that someone gets a book deal.

It is almost as though feminism, with rape as its current sine qua non, is profiting from rape.

And it is certainly as though people enjoy instant rage as much as they do Solve Your Own Murder weekends in the country.  Because, for the sake of fuck, what did this Yoffe idiot really do other than to tell young women not to drink so much?

She can’t legally enforce it, can she?  Not say, like the Australian Federal Government.

I know there are those progressives who are angry about the Northern Territory Intervention which allows legislation based on racial and sexual loathing.  I know there are people aghast that a RACE of people have their access to alcohol (and money and media and dignity) controlled.  But I see so little evidence of rage at an actual law based on the idea that “blacks can’t handle their grog and their raping” and such a dreadful volume of whining that some ditz on Slate said that girls shouldn’t drink so much.

When Jenny Macklin extended the Howard government’s laws on alcohol, where were you?  When Julia Gillard again unleashed Mal Brough’s “rivers of grog”, where were you? If you were defending the civil liberties of Aboriginal Australians, you have my admiration.

If you were seeking profit in writing about the “rape culture”, you probably need to have a little think.  It’s lovely that you like to drink twenty bellinis over brunch. Continue to drink your way to the sanctioned oblivion we white people so enjoy.  No one is stopping you, lady.  Just thank god—to pinch the slogan of artist Richard Bell—you’re not Aboriginal.



Ceremonial Nails by Blonde Tiger

Ceremonial Nails by Blonde Tiger

It is difficult not to have one’s guts modified by the rich offerings of WB Yeats.  Of course, anabolics
I am a little biased as he wrote so nicely about blondes. But yellow hair is not our chief object of inquiry, discount today.  It is, rather, to talk about the importance of symbol and not, as I have done so frequently in past months, how much it shits me.  Oh. And I did want to talk about my manicure as well.

But before we get into the nail art, let’s look very briefly at the critique of a left so newly fond of symbols. And at Yeats; a founding member of the IRA who was also preoccupied with the function of symbols.

Yeats asks us,

How but in custom and in ceremony

Are innocence and beauty born?

A number of people have asked me the same question in relation to my critique of the Cultural Left: how do we proceed without ritual and symbol?  My answer is, we don’t.  Well, that’s part of the answer. If you can bear to keep reading my rococo reasoning on the matter, we’ll get to the other part of the answer, too.

How. How but in custom and in ceremony? In a Prayer for My Daughter, the Irish poet imagines a future in which his both infant girl and an emerging Republic could exist untroubled by warfare and the thoroughfares in which “arrogance and hatred” are peddled.  Here, the vulgarism of opinion and war are forgotten and in their place spreads the “laurel tree” of custom.

Custom. Symbol. Ritual.  Despite my efforts in recent months to decry such things, I wanted to concede some ground to the (inevitable) growth of ceremony.  Or, at the very least, I wanted to explain my views on the connection of the symbolic to the material.

Like a woman possessed of a fresh subscription to Worker’s Hammer, I have spent almost a year frothily urging for a return to a material approach to social reform.  It has been—in the broadest possible terms—my contention that a progressive interest in the cultural and the symbolic has come at the expense of real engagement with the material world these symbols represent. Expression, now a joyous end in itself, has become largely detached from meaning.

Let me give you two examples; both involving marriage.

In September of this year, a gut-churning story about a Yemeni girl was circulated in international press. I shan’t go into the heartbreaking details of the death of an 8-year-old allegedly wrought by sexual abuse; I’m fairly certain you saw the coverage which led to an “international outcry” and instant demands for an end to the practise of the marriage of children.  Within minutes of reading a (still unsubstantiated) report, the western world decided that it had a full knowledge of what marriage of children in rural Yemen meant.

Few considered the possibility that this could be a form of betrothal or promise that had as much to do with brutal child rape as a Care Bears-themed birthday party.  Nonetheless, this abuser—if he existed—was not an aberrant criminal as he might have been considered in the west but the product of an evil nation of backward brown people.  And the little girl—if she existed beyond SEO—was a victim on whose behalf all serious feminists should campaign.

I am not proposing that this terrible thing did not happen. Terrible things happen in all part of the world more often than I wish to concede.  I am, however, proposing that this incident attached itself quickly to a meaning that was, in fact, invented; that the story quickly became an ethnocentric handbag well-meaning progressives could flash about to show how much conspicuously compassionate shit they managed to shoplift from the progressive-liberal remainder bins of a gutter press.

But.  Come on.  Let’s pause and think about how we’re pressing these hazily drawn brown people into the service of our own vanity.

A reasonable person knows that correlation does not imply causation.  That is, we cannot for a minute suppose that this alleged rape and murder was in any way the systematic by-product of marriage. I mean.  Did all those people Tweeting and Facebooking about the “barbaric” practice really know anything of its cultural function? I imagine only a Yemeni citizen or an anthropologist could properly understand what a “child bride” actually is and whether or not they are routinely subject to rape. FFS.  For all I know, this “marriage” is about as traumatic as a First Communion.  Nonetheless, the virtual ribbons came out to ban the betrothal of children based on nothing but the west’s revulsion for things it does not properly understand.

I’m striving to concede ground to the Laurel Tree here; no more land wars with Razer.  But this sort of “feminism”—such as that we see for women in Afghanistan—is so fucking stupid and Eurocentric I could plotz.  In Yemen, as in Afghanistan, most people have no access to clean water.  Most citizens, of either gender, live in a poverty so dire that not even the best-cooked books of the World Bank can jazz it up.  Illiteracy, mortality age and malnutrition are so shit that we can be sure that lots of women (and men) will die before encountering the indignity of a “patriarchy” we western women choose to see in a marriage system we don’t actually understand.

These countries are on THEIR KNEES.  But, so ardent is our love for the idea of “progress” and its symbols, we will bind ourselves in the next available Twibbon to save The Poor from “injustices” they are too sick and starving to notice.  Stop marriage!

Which brings us to a form of marriage to which support on the left is nearly universal. Start marriage!

“Marriage Equality” has become such urgent business for the left that it does not hesitate to name the practice “life-saving”.  It has now become quite usual in Australia to say that the legalisation of a ceremony (and let’s remember, it IS just a ceremony; same-sex couples had all the rights afforded to all domestic partners by the ALP in 2008) will stop suicide.

So, just as we conclude Yemeni marriage ends in rape and death, we conclude that same-sex marriage can only produce happiness and life.

I have written sufficiently on the topic of same-sex marriage before and I am so tired of being misunderstood that I will not reiterate my views on its cloying conservative hopelessness in this forum.  But I did wish to point out, by way of revising what became an accidental project, that we cannot argue that custom and ceremony will produce any particular thing.

Yeats knew this.  He knew that the radical innocence of Ireland would never be reclaimed; he knew that his daughter would never sit beneath a spreading laurel tree protected by the blooms of beauty and ceremony.  I think that this man, engaged with politics as he was, knew that the end of history was upon us.  That in the twentieth century, it would no longer be possible to find use in ceremony; just a little pleasure.

Those pre-performance peptides have been working well.

Those pre-performance peptides have been working well.

And this is the ground I concede beneath the tree.  That ceremony and symbol can afford pleasure.  Which is why I had my friend Erin do my nails to represent my own upcoming ceremony, the Melbourne Marathon.

But we need to be careful about the degree of pleasure we take in symbol, story, ceremony and ritual.  We need, like Yeats, to see that history has come to a point where innocence and rebirth through ritual is no longer possible.  We need to be mindful, as in the Yemeni example, that we do not allow our own misreading of symbol to become just more clumsy globalisation.  We need to fret, as in the Marriage Equality example, that we do not allow the cheerleading for more “normal” behaviour to drain all the beauty and danger out of queer.

We must not accord so much importance to gesture.

But, on Sunday, I will make a gesture myself.  A small one.  To end my year of reacquainting myself with Marx and the newer, terrible idea that history is soon to find itself in a material dustbin, I will run a Marathon.

I will honour a run of antiquity and I will also earn some money for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation if you’d care to donate.  And I will do this with a manicure.  This is my concession to gestures.   This is my admission that cautious ceremony is okay.

But. Hey.  Can we not overdo it?

Innocence and beauty may stem from ceremony; from ribbons and apologies and petitions. But clean water and material equality prosper in quite a different garden.

15 Responses to “In Custom and In Ceremony”

  1. Cathy Stephens says:

    Love ya work, Helen, but is there a confusion here between symbols, rituals and ceremony? Rightly or wrongly, it’s accepted by a lot of us (except Richard Dawkins) that people go for rituals—whether that’s having a funeral when someone dies, having a cup of tea when they’ve achieved 300 words or getting your nails done before a marathon. Is what you object to the fact that in the social media age *symbols* are being latched onto rather than deeper issues?

  2. Helen Razer says:

    I was just saying that the primacy of these things was a bit much and that we needed to watch it.

    • Cathy Stephens says:

      Fair cop. Good luck for the marathon.

      • Helen Razer says:

        I am saying that there are two kinds of “left”: the material and the cultural left. And that the latter group has all but forgotten the aims of the former.
        I thought I was pretty clear in saying that I wanted to concede some ground and say that symbols are okay? No?

        • Cathy Stephens says:

          Yeah, that’s all good. By “fair cop”, I meant, “that’s fair enough” and I see your point. I totally agree with it—I was just being a semantic nerd in the first post.

  3. Colin says:

    A well articulated article as usual Helen and yes I think symbols are OK and in fact can be useful still. Also good luck with the marathon.

  4. Carlene says:

    You make it impossible for me to disagree!
    Beautifully expressed. I do so love your writing.
    Good luck Sunday.
    I’ll keep ‘spruiking’ the fundraiser until I kickoff at 8 for the half
    All the best

  5. Diane says:

    I think I just did a little wee of pleasure. Is that symbol or ritual?

    • phyllis.stein says:

      It could be both: a “sign” of a damaged pelvic floor that succumbed to your travails and senescence, or a ritualistic paraphilia. Yoga helps.

  6. Dave says:

    Nice to read you again!!
    Good luck on Sunday x

  7. len (tredlgt) says:

    a pleasure to read, thank you. i hope you beat the pm in the run.

  8. Fladdle says:

    Thanks again Helen. I need reminding all the fucking time.

  9. Carlene says:

    My simplistic view: the material exists, has validity & will result in change without the cultural. The cultural can however give the material ‘colour & movement’ ie expression if you will. The cultural without the material however is symbolism with no meaning & no chance of making any difference to anyone

  10. Sue says:

    I’m a total gorger of Jung so I wallow in ritual and symbol. They have been lifelines – they’ve helped me make some sort of sense of the fucked-up PTSD parts of myself that threaten to suck me under. But as far as them being any kind of action in themselves, really they are just the impetus that girds your loins and gives you some sort of a framework of meaning so that you can start to act. That seems to have been the most valuable attribute they’ve had in cultures other than ours … which probably explains why Westerners are so imaginatively flabby and apathetic even when the Global Government of Goldman Sachs Et Al (TM) is stealing everything out from under our feet.

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