Junk memes

An article in yesterday’s ‘Age’ carries good news, the Egyptian government has finally decided to outlaw female circumcision, although I have to say it is outrageous it took them so long. What prompted the decision was the death of a 12 year-old girl from complications. Good news too that the head sheikh of al-Azhar university has said that the practice is un-Islamic and the Coptic Patriarch has said it is un-Christian. A bit late though, the reason the practice persists is because the mullahs and priests did not speak out against the practice and often endorsed it. When the Egyptian government tried in the past some Muslim scholars argued that the practice WAS Islamic. The reason for this confusion is that according to the Shafia’a school of sharia both male and female circumcision is mandated. It might not be in the Koran but it has been debated amongst scholars with some coming down in favour of the practice.

Of course there is no medical reason for the procedure, it is entirely cultural. At some point in the past (pre-Christian and pre-Islamic) some fool had the bright idea that the clitoris was a bad thing and should be cut off (along with the labia minora). The practice is based on Semitic ideas of sex as sin and that the clitoris, as an organ of pure pleasure, was the devil’s seed. Both Christian and Muslim clerics have described the procedure as necessary so as to excise the source of female temptation and pleasure. What better way to control women’s sexuality than to cut it out?

We can look at this procedure with abhorrence but the tragic fact is that it persists because women believe it is a necessary precondition to marriage. Mothers take their daughters to women who perform the procedure. It has become a cultural practice and even though it is completely irrational it persists just because it is a cultural practice.

We can understand that it began as a way to control women. The Abrahamic traditions have a fear of women’s sexuality. She is a temptress. That’s why Islam demands that women wear the hijab and burka. I mentioned the plight of Chahinez who was verbally abused when she wore Western clothes. It’s all about conforming to social norms no matter how silly. How many Muslim men would be shocked to learn that in the West men and women join naturist groups and mix freely and that the men are not driven into an uncontrollable sexual frenzy (and don’t get erections – btw, a recent study of men and women contradicted a common belief. The study was to judge reactions to couples having sex. What the study showed was that men tended to go straight to the woman’s eyes and linger before looking at them screwing, whereas the women went straight to the screwing and lingered longer on it than the men, disproving that men are only interested in sex) and are able to carry on perfectly normal conversations. The writer Ayan Hirsi Ali describes the first time she went swimming in a pair of bathers in mixed company. She was shocked that the men did not pay her much attention and that she felt perfectly safe. She had been led to believe that the men would be uncontrollably aroused. The clerics who had told her this were lying.

There are many social norms that are irrational. They exist because they exist. They are like junk DNA in genes, except we could say they are junk memes. This is what culture often is, a collection of irrational rules based on ignorance. It becomes a vicious circle of belief. Some fool decides that such and such has to be done and then a system of enforcement arises. The enforcers rise to a position of power and authority and so they maintain the belief system in order to maintain their power and privilege. They enforce the system through a set of real and imagined threats and punishments. Laws are passed to preserve the junk memes and people are punished (and sometimes killed) or they live in fear of going to hell. The reason the cruel practice of female circumcision persists is because people believe the myth that surrounds it.

We can look at North Africa and realise that many of their beliefs are nonsense. As Chahinez found, all the stories she had heard about the decadence of the West were wrong. She found that she had much more freedom in France (despite the discrimination against Muslims) than she did back in Algeria. She found that women were treated with a great deal more decency and respect than in Muslim countries. Let’s expose the lie. Muslims complain that women are given more respect in Muslim countries. Bullshit. Only if they conform to conservative expectations. In several countries women are kept in place by threats and fear. How many have been killed in honour killings for ‘shaming’ the family? And the nature of the shame? To step outside the narrow role for women. There was a case in Britian recently. A father ordered the murder of his daughter because she was seeing a man he did not approve of. They garotted her with a shoe lace and buried her in a suitcase in a backyard.

But we shouldn’t think we don’t have a similar sets of irrational rules. We can look at the conservative moral attitudes of other cultures and laugh. We can listen to their moral conservatives spread fear that if the silly rules are disobeyed the sky will fall in – and laugh because we know the sky won’t fall in if couples hold hands and kiss in public, or if women wear bikinis when they go swimming.

So I thought I would list our own silly rules, our own junk memes.

1. The fear of nudity. Nothing will happen if we decide that clothing is optional. After a relatively short while we will get used to naked bodies and think it perfectly normal.
2. The fear of seeing genitals, even when aroused. Again nothing will happen. In Rome there were phalluses everywhere. The god Priapus was popular and there were many statues and frescoes depicting his enormous member.
3. The fear of open sex. Again nothing will happen. Most people will still prefer private love making, but the sky will not fall in if they are seen, or if you see them, or if children see them.
4. The fear of children openly exploring their sexuality. Provided they are not exploited by adults nothing will happen (and provided they are taught about controlling pregnancy and STI’s).
5. Open and frank sex education and training. This will actually lead to greater sexual and emotional intelligence. The moral conservative agenda keeps people fixated at low levels of both.
6. The depiction of nudity and sex in art, film and TV (even in prime time) (I’d love to see a children’s mystery/adventure film set in a naturist colony like Montalivet in France, the nudity would be incidental to the plot) (Incidentally generations of families have been holidaying in Montalivet and the photographer Jock Sturges, who owns a holiday home there, has captured the ease at which children accept the lifestyle, most of his first subjects have grown up and recounted how fondly they remember holidays at Montalivet – the film might be a simple story about a holiday adventure at Montalivet).
7. The full acceptance of alternative sexualities, homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality and polyamory. Again, most people will be heterosexual and monogamous but won’t feel threatened by difference.
8. Flexible gender roles.

It would be interesting to hear your reaction. Have I gone a step too far? Why? What will happen, will the sky fall in or will we adjust? All of these things have been found in one or other culture. Some Polynesian societies would honour a girl’s vagina by regularly massaging it with aromatic oils (with orgasms and pleasant feelings a happy side effect, but not the purpose – the purpose being to have a nice smelling vagina). Both boys and girls would get explicit instruction and girls would be given dildos. Under the ‘taure’are’a’ system adolescents were free to play around. When Captain Cook landed in Tahiti he was entertained with a traditional dance in which a 12 year-old girl has sex with a warrior (it’s recounted in his diary). In the Trobriand Islands children were even freer and adults were nonplussed. For over forty thousand years Aborigines walked around completely naked. Do we think for one moment that these societies were traumatised (or their children)? Quite the opposite, as misguided as it may seem the Pacific is regarded by Western society as an earthly paradise.

The fear of nudity and sex arises in sex negative societies. The fear is irrational and based on mythic thinking, on junk memes. Western society has thankfully moved on from a very dark and sex ignorant period. Islam still has a long way to go, but we shouldn’t be complacent. We still have much further to go.

What’s stopping us? Two things:

1. A set of laws that privilege the Judeo-Christian myth and the moral system they derive from the myth, and a system of controllers (priests, police and others) who benefit from the power and authority.
2. A willing population who believe in the immutability of junk memes because that’s the way they were raised, in other words, an inherent social conservatism that punishes anyone who disobeys the rules, no matter how silly the rules are. Social disapproval is a major factor.

Ethnocentric thinking includes accepting and obeying ‘the rules’ of the group. Sometimes the rules are designed to test obediance. It’s not unusual for a ruling elite to make rules just to see how high their subjects will jump. Some of the most fatuous of these rules can be found amongst the Aryans of India, like the rule forbidding an untouchable from letting their shadow fall on a precious brahmin. How ridiculous can it get? Well, even more ridiculous – a story in the paper about a brahmin mother who insisted her son takes his own plate to university for fear that he might eat off a plate once used by lower caste scum (thus contaminating his precious brahmin purity).

In fact let me suggest a governing principle – wherever you find a silly rule you find someone who benefits. The reason the Judeo-Christians protect their silly sexual morality is because their whole system is largely dependent on it. If these rules are found to be arbitrary and unnecessary then a large part of their ideological edifice collapses and so does the church itself and all that tax free money and property that feeds the egos of narcissistic priests and self-proclaimed ‘born again’ reverands and ministers. Keeping junk memes alive and thriving is big business.

Now a caveat – we do need to be careful. Some rules are necessary and there for good reason. I happen to think that at least seven of the ten commandments make good sense (just not the three that refer to god). I don’t think you should kill (or use violence or force) , lie, steal or covet your neighbour’s wife (or friend’s lover). It’s the rules governing sex that are mostly irrational.

And another caveat – one of the apparent contradictions inherent in my approach is that people with low emotional and sexual intelligence, and therefore low impulse control, will not respect personal boundaries, especially those of adolescents and children. The question is, will a relaxing of the rules allow more abuse to occur, not just child sexual exploitation, but all forms of physical, emotional and mental abuse? This a serious and complex question. Firstly, people with low sexual and emotional intelligence are more likely to abuse others simply because they do not respect or even understand another person’s physical, emotional and mental boundaries. If they get angry they hit out, if they feel lust they exploit the next available opportunity even if it is rape or some kind of physical, emotional or mental manipulation or force. Studies of jail inmates typically show low scores on most developmental tests. In cases of mental disease or disability, such as sociopathy, autism, the person may not be able to read emotions or even recognise the rights of others.

The answer to this is that sexual repression actually causes low sexual and emotional intelligence. The cycle of abuse is real. It may seem counter-intuitive but a careful relaxation of sexual repression will lead to an overall increase in sexual and emotional intelligence and therefore a drop in abuse. It will still happen and should not be tolerated or excused, but the current belief that more repression is needed will only compound the problem by locking in low sexual and emotional intelligence. Let me repeat a point made in my previous post. The Abrahamic moral code is based on low sexual and emotional intelligence and therefore locks the faithful into closed behavioural patterns that inhibit emotional and sexual, and therefore moral, growth.

I know I’m repeating a theme and indulging in finding different ways to express the same point, but I believe Integral Theory must recognise the role these irrational beliefs play in inhibiting human potential. We actually have nothing to loose because many of these rules are fatuous, and everything to gain.


About theurj

Also known as theurj. I've contributed some essays to Integral World and co-founded Open Integral blog, now defunct. I continue to participate in Integral Postmetaphysical Spirituality forum.
This entry was posted in Ethics & Morality, Politics, Ray's Integral Blog, Sexology. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Junk memes

  1. 'Shahadtu' says:

    July 1, 2007

    The author of the article does not seem to know or understand the different levels that are ‘within’. Therefore the entire article was not read from the second-half onward because it probably would not have been worthwhile.

    This comment is posted not in regard to the event discussed at the beginning of the article, yet rather to the accuracy of content.

  2. ray harris says:

    Exactly what levels within? I don’t think anyone would understand what you mean. You need to be more explicit.

    I think you have jumped to several false conclusions.

  3. ray harris says:

    I now suspect that the ‘within’ you mean is levels of interpretation of the Koran. In which case I do know about them and also know that there are different systems. But in any case I don’t see how this is relevant to my point, unless you want to suggest there are levels of understanding female circumcision.

    But again, unless you are clear about what you mean by ‘within’ (within what? The human, the soul, and which system of within do you mean, Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi?) I can’t comment.

  4. Richard says:

    Most intelligent people would, I suspect, go along with your view (if I can paraphrase) that nudity, either our own or others’, is completely harmless and yet relatively few seem able to prove the point by being comfortably naked in front of others.

    What is it, do you think, that causes this disparity between rational reasoning and irrational behaviour?

    What, if I may ask a personal question or two, is your own behaviour when it comes to nudity? Are you comfortable when others see you naked? Does it depend on time and place? Does it depend on the sex of those who see you naked? How do you respond to other people’s nakedness?


  5. Ray H says:

    Hi Richard,

    I’m perfectly comfortable either way, but then I’m used to it. If I can I prefer to go to naturist beaches.

    For most people it is uncomforatble at first, simply because we are not used to it. But after awhile it seems perfectly natural, and then you wonder what all the fuss was about. It is possible to forget you are naked.

  6. Richard says:

    Hi Ray,

    Thanks for the reply. The issue I am trying to resolve in my own mind is why, in some areas of thought and belief, there is an apparent disconnect between what people think and how they behave: rational thought versus irrational beahviour.

    Public nudity is a good metaphor as it is difficult to be woolly about whether or not you are prepared to take your clothes off in public especially where that public may not share your view on nudity. In other words going to a naturist beach and being nude amongst like minded souls is one thing but being nude in, say, a town centre or a public park seems to be something that even hardened naturists shun despite the clear evidence that nudity is not only completely harmless but, if taken to mean a lack of body shame, is probably beneficial.

    Of course people will make all sorts of excuses for not being nude in public – fear of arrest, fear of being the centre of attention, fear of being abused etc – but none of these things seems to stop other people with strongly held convictions (political, religious etc) from risking exactly those things to get their message across.

    Interestingly I would have thought that he naked human being shouldn’t really need to justify itself as surely it is saying nothing more than “I am a human being” – aren’t we all!?

    So is the irrational fear of being nude in public so deeply held that no amount of rational thinking will overcome the fear? Why is that do you think?

    Are articles such as yours – which (I assume) seek to change people’s views about their irrational thought processes whether that’s nudity, religion or female circumcision* etc – a waste of time if people fail to challenge not their intellect but their behaviour?


    *What about male circumcision by the way? Isn’t that equally barbaric?

  7. Ray H says:

    Hi Richard,

    In the case of nudism I think it’s complacency. I can only speak for Australia where the naturist movement is intellectually bankrupt and lazy. It’s more about relaxing with a beer and friends and not pushing an agenda. There are some activists who try and push the limits, but they are few. There was one incident where two naturists were bashed for stripping at a popular picnic spot. But on another occasion some people went naked in a public park with no reaction.

    The fact is that many Australians are quite relaxed about nudists and more likely to be amused if they encounter public nudity. Have you heard of Spencer Tunnick? He pushes the boundaries by staging mass nude photographic events. In Melbourne he was invited by the Fringe Festival and the police were notified. Around five thousand people turned up and posed nude in the centre of the city. I would have turned up myself except it was wet and cold and held at sunrise, nonetheless, five thousand braved the cold.

    In Oz the naturist movement is too diverse. Many people will subathe naked in their backyards, but not be too bothered to make a public statement. In other words, its very casual.

    I think the change has to happen on a number of fronts, particularly in the media.

    San Francisco of course, has the Bay to Breakers.

    On the subject of male circumcision, there is a medical argument for circumcision, namely the prevention of infection.

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