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In 1989, Ursula K. Le Guin spoke at Simon Fraser University. During the question period, amid a lively discussion of feminism, a young woman – probably a grad student – asked with an intense earnestness, “But, Ursula, where do men fit in?”

I’ll never forget Le Guin’s answer. With a shrug that gently but firmly dismissed the entire question, she said, “Why, where ever they want.”

She had nothing against men, she went on to explain. There were many men in her life, including in her family, and she would never dream of telling them what to do.

However, what stays with me is that initial response. At the time, I noted that the questioner had forgotten that, although Le Guin was a feminist, she was also an anarchist.

More recently, however, I find myself remembering Le Guin’s comment as a contrast to the comments on certain modern feminist blogs that seem all too eager to tell male supporters exactly what they must do.

I am not talking, of course, about the common sense changes that a male sympathizer needs to make if their convictions are to be taken seriously. So far as I am concerned, learning how to avoid monopolizing the conversation is not only a sign of feminist sympathies in a man, but a sign of maturity in anyone. It seems only common sense, as well, that having a man as a representative of a feminist group is poor tactics and creates credibility problems.

What I am referring to is the viewpoint that implicitly excludes the idea of male feminism by referring to male supporters as allies. In the circles I am talking about, you can be homosexual, transsexual, or queer and not have your feminist credentials questioned, but only men need to be referred to by a euphemism – a habit that marks them permanently as outsiders.

Allies, this school of thought makes clear, are supposed to be well-disciplined subordinates, accepting instruction in the proper way to be supportive, and never questioning or criticizing feminist perspectives. “You’re not being a good ally when you’re telling members of the oppressed group you’re supposedly allied with how to behave,” Julie Pagano states, but, at the same time, “Being an ally does not shield you from criticism when you make mistakes.” The fear seems to be that allies have no sense of discretion, and, if left unchecked for a moment, every single one of them would burst into an opera of mansplaining and interrupting their betters.

Allies are good for swelling crowd shots, and for giving money, but any sense that they might belong is never considered. As for the idea that they could make any intellectual contribution – that is an absurdity dismissed out of hand.

Whether Le Guin today would reply in the same way to that long-ago question, I have no idea. Nor do I particularly care. What matters to me is that it reminds me that I have had an emotional and ethical stake in feminism since I was fourteen, and that I am long past the need to twist myself into an obedient ally to meet someone else’s standard.

It reminds me, too, that you can’t associate with any activist group without realizing that everyone who supposedly shares your views is not necessarily likable. No doubt the circles I am talking about suppose that their lectures on being an ally will produce better supporters, when their real result is likely to force potential supporters to the conclusion that nothing they do will ever be good enough. But who cares? Feminism has survived eco-feminism, so it can certainly survive the idea that allies can be controlled. Such things simply happen from time to time. Besides, there are still plenty of other feminist individuals and causes I am happy to support.

At any rate, I am not dependent on belonging to a group to make a contribution. As a writer, my most immediate contributions to a feminist future are to be an observer of women in computing, and to do what I can to see that the accomplishments of women get the reporting they deserve. These are tasks that not many people are doing, and ones that I do well, so I am proud to continue doing them.

So call me a partner if you like. Call me a supporter, a sympathizer, or even a fellow-traveler. If your world view allows, call me a male feminist.

But, whatever you do, don’t call me a feminist ally. I’m here for a cause, and that cause is not to obey you.

I knew that marrying Trish was a good idea when we both chose the same moment to propose. Better yet, we both had the same condition: she wouldn’t change her name.

This condition was more complicated that it would have been for most people. Trish had been recently widowed when we met, and she had changed her name because her first husband wanted to. However, she had changed her views since then, and didn’t want to go through updating her identity a second time, whether she took my name or returned to her original surname. Besides, she considered her first marriage an important moment in her maturation. The choice seemed completely personal, and we imagined that nobody would think it anybody’s business except ours.

We couldn’t have been more wrong. Everybody felt entitled to advise us – and most wasted no time in telling us that we were wrong. One of Trish’s co-workers, for example, proclaimed in the middle of the office that it was a woman’s “honor and privilege to change her name.” Others insisted that having separate names would be confusing for any children, and they would be stigmatized, or assumed to be her first husband’s – even though, at the time, a couple’s children automatically took their father’s name.

Strangest of all were those who chose to be insulted on my behalf. Although I had made my agreement very clear, some friends and relatives insisted that I was simply putting on a brave front. The choice showed a mental reservation about our marriage, they claimed; Trish was showing a commitment to her first husband that she was refusing to make to me. I should be jealous, even though he was dead.

I did my best to explain. Whenever the matter came up, I said that Trish’s first marriage was part of who she was – that, without it, she might not even be the person I loved. I suggested that I would be selfish to ask her to hide the fact of her first marriage – and that, although I might expect a preference, the choice was really hers.

But nothing I said made any difference. As late as the wedding rehearsal, people were telling us how wrong the decision was, and why it should concern me. I spent the night before the ceremony writing a letter for the priest to read to family members who objected, but whether he ever did, I have no idea. I suspect he may have thought inaction the best course, to let the issue peter out, since we obviously weren’t going to change our minds.

And, in fact, that was what happened. Every once and a while, a family member or two would disinter the issue as another grievance in the middle of another argument, but mostly it didn’t matter. It was even mentioned a couple of weeks ago, although Trish has been dead four years now.

My view now is unchanged from what it was at the time. I marvel at how free people feel to interfere with a personal choice, and I’m left in no doubt that Trish and I made the right choice. The custom of changing a woman’s name when she marries has always seemed dehumanizing to me, and I am proud that we resisted it, and maybe helped in our own small way to make it less of an issue.

When I was in Grade Six, I was precocious and outspoken. My mother, worried that I might be rude at school, asked my teacher if I was a problem in class. “Not at all,” my teacher replied. “He’s always so polite when he corrects me.” He then went on to compare me with a classmate whose corrections were far less diplomatic.

This story, which I heard about hours after it happened, was my first indication of the power of politeness. It taught me that not only could I get away with saying almost anything, so long as I said it politely enough, but that people would listen to a polite comment where they would close their ears a rude one. It’s a perspective that is rare today, when many people consider expressions of anger their right and politeness a form of weakness. Yet the truth is, it’s only one of the advantages that makes politeness (or at least its facade) worth cultivating.

No doubt as a born and bred Canadian, I value politeness more than most people, but I also consider my perspective a pragmatic one. For example, most of the time, you get more cooperation from people with politeness. This observation is especially true when you are dealing with those in the service industry, or others who are usually taken for granted.

Being polite to such people signals that you are viewing them as people, not just bit players in your personal drama. Often, they appreciate the effort enough that if you ask for something unusual, such as a substitution on the menu, they will be give it to you – even if the menu clearly states that no substitutions are allowed. If you are in a store, they are likely to go look in the back for what you want instead of simply telling you that all they have is on the shelf. If the other person is a customs officer, or someone else with potential authority over you, then you will often be forgiven minor infringements of the regulations, simply because you made a small bit of effort and treated them as human.

Should a situation descend into an argument, the appearance of politeness remains useful. Screaming insults may be personally satisfying, but politeness has a way of disarming your opponent. They may shout at you, but shouting at someone who remains polite and apparently calm is strangely unsatisfying. You are not responding the way they expect, and before very long they are likely to either stomp off in frustration or else start listening to you. Almost always, the calm person is the one who controls the situation, and looks best to the audience – and, in the end, it is their perspective and solutions that are adopted.

If all else fails, you can always adopt the kind of icy politeness that the upper class English are so good at – the kind that suggests it is beneath your dignity to argue with your opponent, and that to talk to them at all is a major concession on your part. Better yet, if you can throw in the impression that the politeness is an effort and you are near to going berserk, politeness can be more unsettling than screaming and breaking chairs, for the simple reason that you are leaving your anger to your opponent’s imagination, and what is imagined is frequently more unsettling than what is actually observed.

Politeness in these circumstances takes practice, and might even be against your natural inclination. But the reality is that politeness is far less passive than most people imagine. Treat it as a piece of meta-communication or body language, and few tactics are more successful.

Far from being a sign of weakness, politeness signals that you are the one in control, the pleasant and the logical one, the mature person where others are acting as children. The fact that few of your opponents will ever realize how you are outgaming them only makes your choice of tactics that much more satisfying.

Many artists in their mid-Sixties are past their best work. Their art no longer engages them, and what made them original has grown stale, expressed only in minor works. Then there is Tahltan/Tlingit artist Dempsey Bob, whose face grows boyish with enthusiasm when he discusses his work, and who can be heard fretting about how to find time to realize all his plans. At sixty-six, Bob is as passionate as ever, and, as the work in “North,” his current show at the Equinox Gallery demonstrates in every piece, still at the height of his powers.

Part of the reason that Bob not only survives as an artist but flourishes after nearly five decades is his belief in constant development. Bob’s roots may be in First Nations traditions, but, firm in the conviction that these roots are one of the great artistic traditions of the world, he has not hesitated to explore in other directions as well. In particular, in the last decade, he has been involved in cultural exchanges with Maori artists, visiting New Zealand over half a dozen times to study a culture with striking similarities to his own. Somehow, his latest show seems to incorporate all such influences, at times suggesting everything from a Mayan glyph to European traditions while remaining an extension of his roots.

IMG_20140607_142325

Another sign of Bob’s diversity is that perhaps a quarter of the show is cast bronze. These bronzes are the product of a period that Bob went through 5-10 years ago in which he concentrated almost entirely on works in metal, doing little in wood except for large scale commissions in which he was apparently more supervisor than artist. Varying from a modern coffee table to traditional masks, Bob’s works in metal would seem major accomplishments in any other context. However, hung next to his works in wood, they seem lesser works. The lines that seem so effortless in cedar appear rigid and slightly forced in metal. Just as importantly, the relative uniformity of the metal seems strangely bare compared to the grain of the wood.

bronze1

frog-table

Bob’s wood pieces are impressive for several reasons. To start with, Bob leaves himself no place to hide, rarely using paint beyond a pair of black pupils here or red lips there. One or two pieces are even left unpainted altogether. The rare time that he uses larger regions of colors, as in the “Raven and the Box of Daylight” bentwood box, the result is all the more striking for its rarity. Mostly, Bob has only the wood to work with, and he rises to the challenge consistently with finishing details that rarely reveal the touch of a chisel or a vice.

beaver

bentwood-box

Another noticeable feature of Bob’s work is that his carving is deep and intricate – deeper and more intricate than just about any First Nations carver of the last seventy years. These characteristics are a sign of mastery, because, as often as not, they mean working against the grain, risking cracking or breakages in order to achieve the desired shape. Yet the taking of such pains is worth it, because the depths add another dimension to the carving, casting shadows that become as much a part of the sculpture as the wood itself, even though they are always changing with positioning or the time of the day. They share these features with his metal sculptures, of course, but their softer edges complement the wood in a way that the sharper edges of bronze never manage.

Bob’s subject matter is often traditional. But although he sometimes produces a relatively ordinary work as “Eagle Leader,” more often he takes a traditional shape to produce his own twist. His spirit catcher is several times larger than any that a shaman could ever have used on a sick bed. So, too, is his helmet, which is perhaps the standout of the show.

eagle-leader

helmet

Similarly, his transformation mask might be called post-modern. Like a traditional transformation mask, it is a mask within a mask. However, unlike a traditional mask, it is not fully rounded, but has one side that is flat so that it can be easily hung on the wall. Its shape amounts to a comment on the difference between a mask that is considered a work of art and one that a dancer would wear in the traditional winter ceremonies. After all, when the function has changed, why not change the shape? Bob’s answer is, perhaps, quietly humorous in its practicality, but also strikingly original.

transformation-mask
A photographer enthused to me at the opening of “North” that the way that Bob has made international influences his own while retaining ties to his origins would be instantly recognized by his ancestors of two centuries ago. He would have to explain that poles were rarer today than then, but once they understood that the stories were now depicted instead on sculptures hung on the walls, they would approve his work without reservation.

I understood immediately what he meant. Although the renaissance of First Nations art in the Pacific Northwest has come long distances in the last seventy years, only a handful of artists reach the complexity and absorption of other influences found in the nineteenth century. However, “North” proves, once and for all, that Bob is unquestionably one of those handful. In fact, in his mastery and extension of tradition, Bob just might be the greatest carver that the renaissance has produced.

Seeing two dozen of Bob’s works together is exhausting and inspiring at the same time. I am unlikely to ever afford his work, but knowing it exists is a comfort all the same – an overwhelming a reminder of what great art can be that leaves me wondering why we ever settle for anything less.

In theory, I have no trouble with trigger warnings. If labeling a movie or blog article will make life easier for the traumatized, it would be callous to oppose the practice. The only trouble is, in practice, I am skeptical about their usefulness. Before trigger warnings appear on art and on every university course’s syllabus, as some are suggesting, I think that a few questions that nobody is asking need to answered.

Namely:

  • Aren’t trigger warnings redundant? After all, the title of a work often tells you what to expect; you should not, for example, be surprised that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart deals with upsetting subjects. In cases in which the title is less descriptive, cover blurbs and introductions should let readers know what to expect. Moreover, readers who prefer to avoid upsetting subjects can often find plot summaries and study guides online.
  • Do the traumatized want trigger warnings? Here and there, I have seem approving comments from people who describe themselves as traumatized. However, I have also seen comments from trauma victims denouncing the whole idea. “We’re not all trying to avoid recovery,” one poster responded to the idea of trigger warnings on a mailing list for people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. On the same list, another poster commented, “If someone can identify a trigger, I sort of expect them to be working on coping skills to deal with it.” Assuming that all comments are legitimate, opinion seems divided, and the risk of making patronizing decisions in the name of others seems very real.
  • Are trigger warnings the best way to assist the traumatized? Or would efforts be better spent helping to make the traumatized understand and practice coping mechanisms?
  • Are trigger warnings too simplistic to do any good? Sue’s murder of her children in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure has far more potential to upset readers than the deaths at the end of The Great Gatsby (In fact, I have noticed that large numbers of students miss the deaths in The Great Gatsby until a teacher mentions them). In general, too, a verbal description is usually far less disturbing than a visual scene. Yet I have seen too many trigger warnings that simply observe that rape or violence is forthcoming, with no effort to take context into account. Perhaps triggers need a rating system if they are to be any use.
  • Are trigger warnings trigger warnings in themselves? The very idea that something needs a warning can, in itself, trigger a traumatic reaction. This reaction could be worse than the one the warning is meant to help trauma victims avoid, because what is imagined is often more powerful than what is actually encountered – which is why horror writers often delay the appearance of the monster until near the end of a story.
  • Do trigger warnings have any potentially harmful effects? Supporters of trigger warnings assume that they are empowering the traumatized. But in the absence of evidence, it seems equally probable that trigger warnings could encourage trauma victims to develop a pattern of avoidance when they need be learning coping mechanisms. In steering the traumatized away from anything that reminds them of what they have experienced, we risk steering them away from material that might help desensitize them to the triggers.
  • Is there any scientific evidence that trigger warnings work? Over the last few months, I have been unable to find any scientific study that either confirms their effectiveness or debunks them. The only evidence I have found appears to be entirely anecdotal or rationalization based on wishful thinking.

All these questions come down to a concern that trigger warnings are being advocated without sufficient thought or expertise. I have serious doubts that amateurs should be involving themselves in matters of such complexity, but if anybody is going to play psychiatrist, they should remember one of the fundamental aphorisms of medicine for over two thousand years: “First, do no harm.”

Sometimes, I become frustrated with feminists. Not all feminists, you understand (and, yes, that’s meant as a wry reference)– just the ones who have strayed from basic issues and who promote every piece of pop psychology that happens along. Yet my commitment to feminism itself remains as strong as ever, for reasons that I can best explain through two popular songs.

Neither of these songs did anything to form my world view. I had concluded that feminism was a basic necessity years before I heard either. But when I heard each song, I immediately recognized them as expressing the main reasons I supported feminism. Both express essentially the same idea — that the way things are and have been, too many women’s lives are wasted, and too many women live in frustration and desperation. These are observations that I made long ago, but have never been able to express

The first is “Mothers, Daughters, Wives” by Judy Small. These days, Small is a judge in New South Wales, which seems to me like a waste of a perfectly good folk singer, although it reinforces the basic point of the song.

“Mothers, Daughters, Wives” is written by a second wave feminist to her mother’s generation of Australian women. It begins with the observation that the mother’s generation had watched their fathers, husbands, and sons in succession march off to war. Meanwhile,

you never thought to question,
You just went on with your lives,
‘Cause all they taught you who to be,
Was mothers, daughters, wives.

The song describes their experiences as girls, then as adults during World War 2, when they worked in factories and helped behind the lines while raising their families:

But after it was over,
You had to learn again,
To be just wives and mothers,
When you’d done the work of men.
But you learned to help the needy
And you never trod on toes,
And the photos on the piano
Struck a happy family pose.

This, for me is the core of the song: the fact that the mother’s generation had found meaningful work, making a serious contribution to the war effort, only to find that, after the necessity was over, they had to retreat into the narrow roles dictated by convention, hiding their frustrations and pretending nothing was wrong. The fact that anyone should be forced into such a basic denial of their humanity always angers and saddens me.

Yet Small is not quite finished. After describing the mother’s sons marching off to what must be the Vietnam War, where some of them died, Small depicts the mother’s generation in widowhood, watching

How your daughters change their lives,
Seeing more to our existence
Than just mothers, daughters, wives.

Bad enough that their potential should have been wasted. Yet now, when the future looks brighter for their daughters, the change has come too late for them.

The song ends with repetitions of the chorus. Then Small concludes with what for me is the most horrible part of the song:

‘Cause all they taught you who to be,
Was mothers, daughters, wives –
And you believed them.

In others words, they were complicit in all the waste and loss that shaped their lives, because they always did what was expected of them, and never imagined even the possibility of an alternative or a revolt. All I can think when I hear the last four words is what a horrible way that must be to spend your life. Yet that is a description of millions of lives in the mother’s generation, and of billion of women’s lives before.

In fact, as the second song makes clear, the changes of the last few decades haven’t been nearly enough for many women. The song is “All This Useless Beauty,” a song that Elvis Costello wrote for June Tabor, perhaps in the ultimately realized hopes of convincing her to stop being a pub owner and become the singer she was meant to be.

As the title suggests, the song contrasts women as the target of the male gaze — including the artistic one — and how little good that attention does a woman herself. It only leaves her tied to a man who both attracts and repels her, holding him when he has self-doubts and dressing “to impress his associates.”

The song opens on frustration:

It’s at times such as this she’d be tempted to spit
If she wasn’t so ladylike
She imagines how she might have lived
Back when legends and history collide ….
Those days are recalled on the gallery wall
And she’s waiting for passion or humor to strike.

Yet, at the same time, the woman in the song knows that her longing for a heroic past is all about the stereotypes that seem her only option: the movies made from “the great tragic books”

won’t even make sense, but you can bet
If she isn’t a sweetheart or plaything or pet
The film turns her into an unveiled threat.

Evidently married for some years, she can only conclude that all purpose is either an illusion or temporary:

Nonsense prevails, modesty fails,
Grace and virtue turn into stupidity
While the calendar fades almost
All barricades to a pale compromise.

As the song ends, she is reflecting, “If something you missed didn’t even exist / It was just an ideal, is that such a surprise?” The song ends with the chorus, repeating its question over and over: “What shall we do, what shall we do / With all this useless beauty?”

The question has no answer, because the woman is trapped as much as the mother’s generation in “Mothers, Daughters, Wives,” with nothing to lend meaning to a life of living up to the conventions of traditional genre roles.

I have tried many times to express my own perception of such things, but I always end up so abstractly angry that I soon become incoherent with abstract anger, and my writing skills — such as they are — desert me. If I go into both songs in such detail, it is only because they express what I have never been able to say for myself.

Yet I do know one thing, beyond any dispute: so long as such songs correspond to anyone’s reality, I am going to stay a supporter of feminism, no matter how silly or beside the point some of the other supporters sometimes are.

On April 25, I flew to Terrace for the sixth time to attend the graduation exhibit at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Carving. As usual, the graduation was also a gathering of alumni, and the longhouse where the show is held was so heavy with the smell of varathane as students worked to the last minute to finish their pieces that leaning into one of the display cases could leave you dazed and dizzy.

longhouse

This year’s show was stronger than last year’s on two accounts. To start with, the first year class included at least two promsing artists. Kyle Tallio exhibited a hawk mask, whose elongated shape and and striking painting made it a standout:

kyle-tallio

Another first-year standout was Reuben Mack, who continue the tradition of his extended family (including Latham, Kyle, and Lyle) with a portrait mask that showed both a steady hand on the paint brush and an attention to detail that should serve him well if he chooses an artistic career:

reuben-mack

Yet another promising first-year was Kirsten McKay, this year’s winner of the Mature Student Award, who placed a Chilkat weaving design on a spoon with pleasing results:

kirsten-mckay-chilkat-spoon

Even more importantly, the work of several second year students demonstrated that they had put the last year to good use. Cyril Bennett-Nabess showed a notable improvement in both his painting and carving, displaying several masks, including this traditionally-shaped bear mask:

cyril-bennett-nabess-becoming-a-bear

Similarly, Roberta Quock showed the same high standards that made her an Honorable Mention for the Mature Student Award in 2013:

roberta-quock-thunderbird

The work of two students in particular stood out form. Lyle Quock, who stood out in his first year, showed an originality of design and color selection in the masks he displayed this year:

lyle-quock-moon-mask

lyle-quock

But if I had to choose a single artist as a standout, it would be Loretta Quock-Sort, an Honorable Mention for the 2013 Mature Student Award. Quock-Sort’s female portrait mask was one of the more original pieces in the show:

loretta-quock-sort-mask

loretta-quock-sort-leather-robe

But it was her work in fabric that stood out, including a leather robe with mask in their own display case, and the black and red robe that she wore for the graduation itself.

loretta-quock-sort

The show opens at The Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver at the end of May, possibly with a few works that were not ready in April. If you want to see what the next generation of First Nations artists are doing, you won’t find a better place to satisfy your curiosity and aesthetic senses.

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