Friday, February 2, 2007

Chutzpah of the Week (sort of)

This week's award was inspired by Linda Sieg's report for Reuters on the broader repercussions of a verbal gaffe:

When Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa called women "birth-giving machines" he outraged the many Japanese who have shed traditional gender stereotypes, confirming their suspicions that Japan's leaders are out of step with the times.

This was not going to be a simple matter of damage control. Yanagisawa even admitted to the press that his wife has scolded him. However, there is more to chutzpah than an embarrassing slip of the tongue; and this is what Sieg is trying to get at in preparing a more comprehensive report:

"What women are angry about is that Yanagisawa's remarks are evidence that this is the view of men who have power," said Sumiko Iwao, an honorary professor at Tokyo's Keio University who until last month headed a government advisory panel on gender equality.

In other words the chutzpah lies not in Yanagisawa but in the way he because the inadvertent spokesman for a prevailing Zeitgeist in a ruling political party that should know better. As a matter of fact, the scale of that Zeitgeist extends beyond national boundaries. Consider Sieg's quote from part-time worker Keiko Otsuki:

As a woman, I find it offensive to be treated like an object.

As Spike Lee demonstrated in his Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke, this is language that hits us directly on our own turf, beginning with the woman he interviewed while she was being evacuated from the Superdome who finally erupted in the complaint that the evacuees were being treated like slaves. Slavery is the ultimate "objectification of the subject;" and the real chutzpah behind Yanagisawa's gaffe was his subconscious legitimation of what, in my previous blog, I called "management by objectification" (citing Auschwitz as yet another example).

When I first decided to try to launch a "Chutzpah of the Week Award," it was very much in the spirit of a comment that Molly Ivins made that I have seen cited in many of the obituaries I have read over the last couple of days:

Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous.

There is no question that "management by objectification" is ridiculous; and Yanagisawa deserves this week's award for holding it up to ridicule, even if his act was subconscious. However, the ridicule becomes all the more important when the target is such a blatant affront to our very sense of humanity, which is why the very concept of the award was born out of a particularly representative example from Myanmar. Unfortunately, trying to reshape a Zeitgeist is a little like trying to steer a battleship; but being aware of the need for a course change is still the first step!

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