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Words Matter

Barbra Streisand sang, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”   Well…perhaps not so lucky.  Every “we” needs a “they.”   Every “us” needs a “them.”   “Us and them” used to live on different sides of the mountain or across oceans from one another.  mm-2We now stand in the grocery checkout line together each reviewing our ideologically polarized social media feeds.  From what I’ve seen, this presidential election promises to play on primal emotions rising from religion and gender.   

Traditionally, visible sexual organs separate us into the initial “in” and “out” groups within our cultural neighborhood so to speak, and things flow from there.

Those born into the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, likely hear some version of the Adam and Eve story.  God fashions Eve out of Adam’s rib so Adam doesn’t have to be alone.  Then Eve lets a talking serpent convince her to disobey God by eating forbidden fruit and then convinces Adam to do the same.  Adam and Eve find themselves expelled from the Garden of Eden and following that, their descendants come into life tainted.  Whatever you think about this story, if you grew up in cultures shaped by the Abrahamic religions, you grew up in areas where people are likely to associate femininity with beauty but also with weakness, vanity, jealousy and manipulation while associating masculinity with physical strength, courage, logic and power.

In his book “The Gene,” Columbia Professor of Medicine Siddhartha Mukherjee w rites that pre-Christian Greeks and medieval Christian small- s-scientists theorized about reproduction and heredity arriving at a conclusion originating with Pythagoras, that fully formed mini-homunculi resided in men’s bodies awaiting transmission to the woman who served as a passive nest.  The Greek Philosopher Aristotle did notice that some little boys looked like their mothers’ mothers yet still, rigid notions of female as passive animal and male as intelligent force proliferated.  The expiration date on the lasting effects of this bad information seems to be somewhere in the future even as the statutes of limitations run out in specific cases of serious damage caused by this flawed mindset.

Today, the ideologically extreme ISIL kidnaps women to serve as sex slaves to ISIL warriors and tosses homosexual men off rooftops.  In Maricopa County Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio forced male prisoners to wear pink (feminine) underwear because in Arpaio’s mind, what could be worse for a male than to be treated like a woman? Related to the carnage in Orlando, much information about Omar Mateen’s radicalization hints his violence stemmed possibly from his own disowned attraction to men.

mm-1Recorded history suggests that cultures first developed religions and ideologies shaped around geography and climate. So-called pagan religions reflected differing aspects of nature and humanity acknowledging male and female deities.  God as natural force gave way to a more human faced god and the human gods resembled the humans in power:  emperors, pharaohs, and divine right family lineage based monarchs.  Generally, those people who believe in a god generally refer to that god as “he.”   

That “he” thinking leads to much misery for the “she’s” of the world, many of whom have been treated as “things” and then blamed for allowing themselves to be treated that way.

When I was ten or eleven, a man from our church explained to me how God sometimes sent babies to the wrong houses. At this point, I believed that God raised his right hand in heaven, said a blessing and a baby started growing where God wanted it to grow.  My Baltimore Catechism said God was all-powerful.  Anyway, when God made “baby” mistakes, men fixed them by having a stork re-deliver the package to the right address, and like with any package that’s being delivered, what’s in the package is important, the box and wrapper are not, so the box and wrapper were not kept. (My parents told me that storks didn’t deliver babies, mothers did, and I’d understand some day.)  Intellectually, what troubled me most that day was the idea that an all-powerful God made mistakes leaving men to decide how to fix those mistakes.

I am not alone in having grown up with the notion that femininity represents some sort of weaker dynamic.  Most of the world’s religions stand by on this notion based on creation stories made up by creatures.  I am also not alone in seeing gender issues played out repeatedly in controversies over clergy abuse, campus rape, women’s reproductive health issues and in the slaughter in Orlando, a slaughter that caused terror, but was more than the usual terrorist attack.

Gender matters.  Words inflame.  Our prospective leaders’ words matter.

Debra Merryweather