Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Seeing the Big Picture

I remember seeing False Messiah’s post on the doctored photograph in Der Tzitung, a Yiddish newspaper, removing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a week ago and not thinking twice about it; this is the sort of thing I expect from a Haredi paper. Amusing and worth a chuckle at yes; making a big deal about it no. So it was to my surprise that the story exploded from the Jewish blogosphere into the mainstream news, finding its way to the Huffington Post. Clarissa went on a tear on the subject.

I don't want to hear anybody come here to screech about the so-called religious sensibilities of the nasty freakazoids who insulted women in this way. If they find the photo hurtful to their fanatical feelings, they could have avoided publishing it altogether. However, in our Western Civilization women now play an important role in all areas of existence. It is extremely insulting to have our reality that we worked hard to create being manipulated in this way to satisfy a bunch of miserable woman-haters.

Even my non-Jewish friend, whose desk is across from mine in the office, asked me about the photo. So I will throw in my own two cents on the matter, particularly as I think the wrong lesson is being learned. The focus of the story has been about women; was this disrespectful to women to censure out the most powerful woman in the country from what will likely be a historic photograph? I see this as a story of bureaucracy following its own particular kind of logic down the path into absurdity.

The feature of the bureaucratic mind on display in this story is the top-down attempt to establish a specific set of rules to cover a wide variety of people and situations. Particular emphasis is placed on satisfying those who are loudest and most extreme; the sort of people likely to take action over even, what may seem to others as, minor issues. If the proposed solution may seem to some as surrender to blackmail, without a doubt the solution will display an elegant pragmatism to lull reasonable men with the siren call of “let us get along.” For it is a reasonable man who must desires to get along with others. This leads to the empowerment of extremists along all fronts as they see they can blackmail the system and get away with it. Another problem comes when, due to the law of unforeseen consequences, a situation arises that the bureaucrat failed to see. Of course the bureaucratic mind still follows its procedures leading to disaster or if we are fortunate just absurdity. This applies to all bureaucracies, religious or otherwise.

People have all sorts of ideas about what sorts of things are appropriate to be shown in public and should be considered “obscene.” This is a difficult arena of human activity to set rules for because there is little to no logic as to what positions people take; it is just a reality that people have lines. (To anyone who thinks they are exempt, I suggest they consider what their reaction would be to pictures of little girls being raped and murdered.) For better or worse and for various historical and cultural reasons, people’s ideas about obscenity tend to focus on women and the amount of clothing they are wearing. Even the mainstream media does not show women topless, a situation that often leads to absurdity. (See "Defending the King's F-Word Speech.") Even feminists take moral positions regarding the depiction of women.

A Haredi newspaper has to deal with this same problem of what rules to set about the depiction of women as any other media outlet. To make things more difficult, a Haredi newspaper caters to an audience with a significantly lower tolerance for how women are depicted. The label Haredi, like any group, covers many different kinds of people with different temperaments, some of whom are willing to give more leeway for how women may be depicted and some less. Regardless of their actual numbers, those with a more restrictive view wield more power. They hold the moral high ground as the ones who represent “true Jewish values.” Armed with this moral high ground they are all the more likely to speak out and even boycott the paper.

How does the bureaucratic mind solve this problem and offer something that could satisfy all? Simple, just have no pictures of women. It is not like there are readers who will strongly object to there not being pictures of women. With no pictures of women the cause of all our problems will be removed and we can all read our Haredi newspaper in peace. That is, of course, until absurdity strikes in the form of a photograph of some of our leading public figures, including Hillary Clinton. Thankfully this time around the bureaucratic logic did not lead to bans that destroy people's lives.  


Clarissa said...

"For better or worse and for various historical and cultural reasons, people’s ideas about obscenity tend to focus on women and the amount of clothing they are wearing."

-That's not true. We are a lot more likely to see a completely naked woman than a completely naked man on film. Even pornography is often quite shy about make bodies.

If somebody found the presence of Jews obscene and erased them from a similar picture, would you also be surprised that the topic would attract attention?

Izgad said...

“Pornography” is still viewed as obscene and cannot be shown on network television. Hence the insanity over Janet Jackson’s nipple ring. Male nipples are shown on a nightly basis and no one thinks twice about it. Yes, in certain respects, our culture has greater hang ups about male nudity. I suspect this has to do with our lingering discomfort with homosexuality and women’s sexuality. Again obscenity rules are absurd.
If there was a culture that viewed some element of Jewish dress as obscene then I would not take it personally if they simply removed pictures of Jews. I would just think they were being ridiculous.
On a side note, I would acknowledge that the paper’s decision is problematic in that it avoided an opportunity for its readers to consider the implications of women in power. In my own experience one of the most effective ways to bring people to more liberal ideas about women (or other groups for that matter) is the simple reality of seeing women in non-traditional positions. The first time I saw a picture of a woman rabbi I thought it was really weird. Now I accept it as part of the reality in which I live in. My beliefs on the matter have subsequently become more liberal from that of my childhood. As long as Haredim live in a reality in which women are not in positions of power, a reality enforced by not seeing pictures of women in positions of power, they will continue to hold to a conservative model of “women just do not do certain things.” Like all obscenity claims, it is not based on reason and therefore cannot be refuted by reason. Put in the pictures of women and even a Haredi society will find itself hard pressed to maintain the status quo for more than a generation.

B.R. said...

Great post. I saw this topic being discussed in a Women's MBA group on LinkedIN of all places. Of course the original poster was absolutely appalled and enraged at this 'utter disrespect of women'. My response pointed out that the article and the entire paper was not directed at her as an what? I have had 'ins' to see enough groups do enough crazy things when they create publications for their own audience. The Nation of Islam is notorious for publishing books which contain outright lies about White Americans. Are White Americans enraged at the Nation of Islam or even Farrakhan for that matter? I'm not a White American, but my guess is that most people could care less. I see this as a similar situation.