Renée Gerlich outlines how we are robbed of the natural urge to feel compassion by cultural expectations in her new book Out of the Fog.
This talk was given by Renée Gerlich, during the online launch of her new book, Out of the Fog: On Politics, Feminism and Coming Alive. The launch was hosted by Spinifex Press and took place on Tuesday, October 18, 2022. Out of the Fog is now available from Spinifex, e-book platforms, or your usual online or bricks-and-mortar bookseller.
There are a few themes and premises on which my book, Out of the Fog, rests. I will focus on one of them tonight: the idea that our most pressing collective problems, and our most private heartbreaks, are inextricably entwined.
It is not immediately obvious that rising sea levels might be connected to the sexual harassment a 15-year-old girl faces at school. And in today’s world, we are used to being presented with high stakes issues, from gun violence to COVID to the sixth mass extinction, that appear to make our private struggles look small, petty and ridiculous, so we minimise them. This is ironic and self-defeating: what breaks our hearts also weighs us down, and when we can’t resolve this pain, we simply do not have the energy and fuel we need to face large-scale problems. Broken hearts cannot stop climate change or end war or systemic racism. Large groups of people who demonstrate publicly together, but harass and abuse and ghost each other privately, can’t really do it either.
Heartbreak about the way we are treated, and the way we treat each other, in intimate and sexual relationships and interactions, is of particular importance here. Not only because it’s in sexual relationships that we are at our most exposed and vulnerable, but also because we are all born into the world out of a sexual relationship. Sex is our beginning, our formation, and a huge part of our adult lives. In Out of the Fog, I quote the spiritual teacher Osho, who says:
It is okay if we don’t go to the moon, there is no real need to go there … But one thing is absolutely necessary – of ultimate concern – and that is that we come to know and understand sex rightly so we can succeed in giving birth to a new humanity.
I agree with this statement – and now I want to look at what this has to do with rising sea levels and climate change.
Barry Sanders is the author of a book called The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism. Mainstream climate change movements do not tend to talk about militarism at all. So, the issue of climate change is effectively sanitised and made into a question of biofuels, electric cars, wind farms, and so forth, and completely detached from, first of all, the issue of violence, and secondly, every other political matter we face today.
But Barry Sanders says that, “the greatest single assault on the environment, on all of us around the globe, comes from one agency … the Armed Forces of the United States.” Sanders points out that US military aircraft consume close to two million reported gallons of oil every day; the Pentagon uses enough oil in one year to run all of the transit systems in the US for the next 14 to 22 years, and the military consumes one-quarter of the world’s jet fuel.
I wonder if anyone here saw Trevor Noah interview Greta Thunberg on the Daily Show, and ask Greta about her mother’s career change from opera to musicals. The two of them celebrated the fact that Greta’s mother moved from opera, her passion, to musicals, because her opera career had required air travel and air travel means carbon emissions. Noah and Thunberg celebrated the fact that this apparently negligible change to Malena Ernman’s career was best for the planet. Let’s consider this alongside another statement from Barry Sanders, who says,
even if every person, every automobile, and every factory suddenly emitted zero emissions, the Earth would still be headed first and at full speed toward total disaster for one major reason. The military – that voracious vampire – produces enough greenhouse gases, by itself, to place the entire globe, with all its inhabitants large and small, in the most imminent danger of extinction.
Consider the strange reality in which we think about climate change as a sort of technical issue in which avoiding a 2-degree temperature rise requires all sorts of technological solutions, particularly to support what’s called ‘conscious consumerism’, like solar panels and electric cars and food products that little logos of green sprouts that look like they were hand tended permacultural village plots.
Statistically, it is women who do most of the household grocery shopping. Under the ethic of ‘conscious consumerism’, it seems like women are meant to grocery shop not only as if capitalism didn’t exist, but as if the commons were never privatised, or the agricultural revolution never happened. As if the supermarket is a place to forage for fresh, organic, plastic-free, deforestation-free, exploitation-free, locally sourced, wild produce.
The idea of conscious consumerism is that we vote with our dollar, so if we do not consume in this way, we are culpable for the destruction that results. So, mothers are supposed to do the groceries balancing their family’s health and likely tightly budgets, against the future of life on the planet.
Now, I do not think there is anything wrong with not purchasing sugary, mass-produced, nutrient-free rubbish, but let’s get real. When you think about what you buy and eat, it’s yourself you are taking care of. When you refuse to buy factory-farmed meat, for instance, you are refusing to go numb just to survive. You are choosing not to desensitise yourself. This is extremely important. Perhaps all important. You just won’t stop climate change with what you put in your trolley.
The ethic of ‘conscious consumerism’ does place that sort of pressure on those who fill the kitchen pantry though. Isn’t it mad that the way we think about climate change seems to place more emphasis on a woman’s choice between two types of breakfast food, than the organised bombing, shooting, and chemical warfare carried out by the world’s militaries?
In reality, it should not surprise us that the most abject violence that human beings carry out is the biggest threat to life on earth. Really, shouldn’t that be the first place we look? At our greatest and most explicit acts of destruction? It should, but Barry Sanders also points out how strange it would be if we did look seriously at military violence, only to focus on the environmental consequences. He writes: “How bizarre to think about installing “an environmentally sensitive culture” inside the military. We might then boast to the Iraqis: Notice how little fuel we consumed to destroy your homeland. The reasoning is absurd.”
Ultimately, the problem with how environmentally friendly we are is really a problem of how violent we are. As a species, we are designed, physically, mentally, and emotionally, to be sensitive and attuned to the world around us, but the cultures most of us grow up in cause us to gradually numb ourselves instead, in favour of ‘fitting in’ to a society in which violence is commonplace. And, it must be said – and this is a statement of fact, not an accusation – most violence we carry out as a species, whether military, domestic or otherwise, is carried out by men. In Out of the Fog, I quote the environmental writer and activist Jonah Mix, who points out:
Women commit perhaps one-tenth of all murders, and less than one-tenth of one percent of all mass shootings. When one removes from the pool of killers all women who struck back against abusive strangers and partners alike, only to be punished for their self-defense, the number drops further. To deny the specifically male nature of atrocity is to fool oneself.
Our self-destructiveness is most evident in men’s violence, and this violence is sustained through the social norm of ‘masculinity’, a concept that glorifies male dominance, in particular over women.
And here we come to the issue of gender, which is to say ‘masculinity’, and its complement, ‘femininity’. Unlike sex, from which these categories are derived, gender is not natural, but cultural. The fact that gender is not natural is proven by the fact that it is killing us. It is not natural for a species to be as self-destructive as human beings have become.
This is something Kathleen Barry, another Spinifex Press author I draw on in Out of the Fog, also argues, in her book Unmaking War, Remaking Men. Barry opens this book with a recollection of a day she was holidaying on the beach, and a boy, playing in the ocean, got caught in the current. His father jumped into the water and managed to swim out and hurl his son out of the waves to safety, but the man was then caught by another, stronger wave that sent him to the ocean floor and out to sea, where he was picked up by the rescue helicopter.
The helicopter came back to the mainland and, when four rescuers emerged with a body bag, Barry describes the “collective grief” that overcame everyone on the beach. For her, the bonds of empathy and relatedness that human beings naturally share with one another, even as strangers, were undeniable in that moment.
Barry opens her book with this story in order to illustrate the challenge that military leaders face, the challenge of how to override that bond. How do you take people with this bond of camaraderie, people who grieve when they witness loss that is not even their own, and turn them into soldiers who will shoot and kill with no personal motivation or grievance? According to Barry, “the answer… is stunningly, frighteningly simple: masculinity.”
As many feminists have explained, one of the primary ways that masculinity is taught to boys and encouraged in men, including in the military, is through pornography. I have an article on my blog, reneejg.net, called Conquest: On the inseparability of militarism and prostitution, which details exactly how and why militaries rely on these industries. But in short, as I write in Out of the Fog:
Porn is the major tool for teaching the fetishisation of violence and domination … because it includes a very efficient reward mechanism: it ties the act of violation to orgasm. This does two things: it reduces a person’s sexual response to something mechanical and insensitive, and cultivates a compensatory addiction to whatever provokes that sex response.
There really is no deeper, more effective, more efficient, or cheaper way to condition a group of people than by capturing their capacity for sexual pleasure, weaponising it and turning it against them. This is what the porn industry does to boys and men. It is crucial to sustaining both masculinity as a norm and the military as an institution.
Today, porn sites account for a very large portion of the internet: one in ten websites. Porn consumption is not only normal, it is actively normalised, and according to another Spinifex author, Gail Dines, as quoted in my book, the average age boys first watch porn is 11 years old. This is before they are mature enough to have grappled with what sex is, what intimacy is, and who they mean to be as people in their most intimate relationships. Pornographers aim to claim this terrain at the outset.
I want to say here, as a short aside, that my book actually promotes political anarchism. Mainstream anarchism though, actually tends to be extremely ironic largely because it sees corporations and the state as the most powerful forces shaping our lives, and it often frames machismo and transgressive sex and BDSM and so forth as a way to interrupt the status quo and polite society – think of the movie Fight Club, or the supposedly far-left activists I quote in my book, who said they would not be satisfied that the Auckland Pride Parade was radical enough until there was, “wall to wall sex down Queen Street.”
The irony here is that pornified sex and sexual cruelty are actually far more deeply indoctrinated into us than capitalism and the state. It is vastly easier to capture someone’s mind and wallet when you already have their sexuality and desire. So by promoting industries like pornography, contemporary nominal anarchists do not only promote one of the largest capitalist industries in existence, they also undermine their own efforts to free people from indoctrination and compliance in general. Porn represents the most violent, and the most conformist, social tendency there is today. A true anarchist would not take inspiration from porn to challenge the status quo – rejecting the pornographic script is the first and most fundamental act of defiance against dehumanisation.
As I point out in Out of the Fog, porn does not only depict rape, but fuels it. Porn consumption has been correlated with some of the most public rape cases we saw in the media between 2014 and 2019. Brock Turner, for instance, the Stanford rapist, consumed porn and videoed his assault to send to his friends. Larry Nassar, former team doctor of the United States women’s national gymnastics team, who was sentenced to prison for up to 175 years in 2016, had vast amounts of porn on his computer, that contributed to his sentence.
But porn has other effects. It is normalised through objectification, the kind of everyday porn-lite we all see in mainstream media and advertising and standards of women’s dress and presentation. Underneath this objectification is the idea that women are just that, sex objects, and many social trends reflect this assumption, from sexual harassment, coercion, and assault, to sexist ‘banter’ and jokes, and new trends like ‘ghosting’.
Our approach to intimacy, and thus to relationships in general, is becoming entirely warped, commodified, and dehumanised – so far from what Kathleen Barry experienced that day on the beach, where human empathy prevailed. This distance between who we are and how we live and how we have learned to relate brings us heartbreak. Healing this heartbreak is not only what we need to bring us relief and aliveness as individuals, it is what we need to access the energy and motivation required to fight for – or rather, to live for – each other and life on earth, and it is what the earth needs. I would go as far as to say that one reason why breakups and romantic insults hurt us so much, in a way that so often feels so out of proportion to the event itself, is that the earth is trying to speak through us. It is saying: this is not love. Remember love.
Now, one thing this does not mean is that we should up the ante in our arguments with those closest to us, and start accusing each other of literal earth-destroying inhumanity. There is too much of that happening already, and it does not appear to be leading us anywhere good.
In my book, Out of the Fog, I promote the concept of ‘response-ability’, borrowed from three authors –psychologist Harriet Lerner, physician Gabor Maté, and spiritual teacher Sadhguru. These writers all explain that responsibility is not what we think it is: our layered burdens of moral obligation. None of us can ‘fix’ the world, or the people around us. Nor is it our duty or place. Instead, we are each gifted the ability to respond.
The political anarchism that I promote simply takes this truth and applies it collectively. Anarchism refers to groups of people who refuse to outsource their own response-ability to elites, politicians, or other supposed power holders.
In summary, in this day and age, we are facing a lot of daunting problems: from climate change to war, policy brutality, gun violence and #metoo, these problems share a common denominator: men’s violence. This violence is inextricable from masculinity and from the widespread pornography that teaches the fetishisation of domination and violation, and that is a driver of our everyday feelings of being objectified, rendered disposable, and left heartbroken. The inhumanity our hearts rail against the most on a day-to-day basis, and in pop songs and TV dramas and movies, is the inhumanity that threatens life.
Our hearts and bodies are calling us to remember the love that is our nature, and it is this call that provides us each with the only true and real starting point to activate our own response-ability to major problems that are not our fault as individuals, and that we cannot fix either as individuals or in dysfunctional collectives. Our ability to respond is the basis for change on an individual level, and for collaboration on an interpersonal one.
I haven’t been convinced by any of the popular social movements that have sprung up in the last 10 years. But imagine the grassroots movements that could be created if we truly owned our desire to remember love, took back our sexual sovereignty from the pornographers, and responded to the world, as individuals, from there, and collaborated together from there. This idea does not make me feel pre-emptively exhausted and daunted by the task at hand. It makes me feel excited. And that is a sign. I even think it is a sign from somewhere beyond me – from somewhere simply human. And that is why I am here today. Thank you so much for joining me.