My Thoughts on the Latest All-Society Platform
A huge thank you to the planners, presenters, tech assistants, and participants for helping our All-Society Platform be such a great event! If you missed experiencing it “Live”, you can view the recording on the AEU’s YouTube Channel: American Ethical Union.
I was especially pleased to meet our dramatic reader, Dennis Parker, in person. It turns out that we live very close to each other and he was open to doing the reading from my dining room! I really enjoyed his reading and the conversation we had after the event as well. I’m hoping that the AEU and Mr. Parker’s organization, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ), will find more ways to partner up soon.
In W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1949 address at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, he quoted a verse from the Bible which, to me, was the central point of his talk: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Although he presented it as a statement, I think it is important to see it as a question. After all, Dr. Du Bois’ first address to NYSEC in 1907 basically asked the same question. Unfortunately, presenting the facts of racism and oppression did not adequately “free” listeners from their misconceptions and forty-two years later, the message bore repeating; and it bore repeating again seventy-three years later.
When will we come to terms with “the silences and omissions and the distortions of history” Dr. Du Bois listed so eloquently in his address? What will it take for the reality of the centuries of oppression to take hold within the hearts and minds of the people who have made up the dominant culture of the United States?
A few years back, the founders of the Women’s Weekend Film Challenge – an initiative to provide opportunities for women film-makers – presented at the Ethical Culture Society of Westchester. Something that has stuck with me from their presentation was their noting of the ways “the male gaze” has dominated the images of women in film. If you are not familiar with the term, Sarah Vanbuskirk in her article “What Is the Male Gaze?” describes it as “a way of portraying and looking at women that empowers men while sexualizing and diminishing women.”
The male gaze is a focused one that zeroes in on particular aspects of women’s bodies to the exclusion of the whole person. The male gaze is objectifying and promotes viewing the objects of desire as tools to be used rather than people to be appreciated. Importantly, the male gaze puts both gazer and gazee in a bind. Frankly, it’s hard to resist gazing and hard for those gazed at to combat the objectification. The gaze is deeply imbedded in the dominant culture of the US.
The male gaze works as blinders do by restricting the view to what most captivates men and leaves out the rest. Why is that so popular, I wonder? To get a better understanding of blinders, I looked up how they came to be used with horses. It seems that they were developed to reduce the fear and stress experienced by horses that were pulling carriages in busy streets. The thinking behind their use was that unseen dangers would be less upsetting than those that were seen. The blinders, then, were meant to be helpful to the horses as well as for the drivers.
At some point, the Massachusetts SPCA weighed in on blinders for horses. There was concern that the bridle/blinder combination that was in use was an undue burden for the horse. They also questioned the need for blinders at all – so they did a study:
In one three-day period in 1912, they counted 10,003 horses going
through their watering stations in Boston. Of these, 9,822 had blinders on.
“We readily grant that now and then a horse is found that may drive
better with them than without them, but that is the exception,” wrote the
group’s president, veterinarian Francis H. Rowley in “Our Dumb Animals”,
the MSPCA magazine. “That the ordinary teaming horse should be
subjected to this device is nothing less than the result of somebody’s
It should be noted that blinders are still routinely used for team horses – perhaps it’s time for another study of their effectiveness.
Recent arguments made against Critical Race Theory come to mind. The notion that our vulnerable children need to be protected from the uglier aspects of US history leads to a blinders’ approach to education that shields children from the discomfort of viewing a harsh reality. But does that really protect them? I strongly doubt it. It certainly does not protect them from having racial prejudices nor does it encourage them to be aware of the real dangers they would do well to be aware of, such as environmental degradation.
And how about blinders you have put to use in your life? As someone who readily skews toward optimism, I relate to the fears of an encroaching reality contradicting my cheerfulness. Moreover, I am no stranger to the male gaze or to the white supremacist gaze and am searching for ways to rid myself of them. Once blinders are in place, it can be hard to remove them – especially so when so many of our friends and loved ones share attachments to similar blinders.
Dr. Du Bois challenged us all to see the facts of our country’s history and have the courage to own what those facts have to say about ourselves and others. Let’s accept his challenge and work to keep our eyes – our hearts – and our minds open to the realities of the past and of the present. Let’s agree that it’s better to be honest and forthright than to pretend all is well. And let’s work to bring in a future where the full spectrum of humanity is seen and appreciated.
*Fran Jurga “Blinkers Off! Horses, Heat and Heavy Bridles Stirred Emotions Long Ago”:
Equus Magazine, March 10, 2017
This post originally appeared at AEU.org.