The Means of Reproduction (a review)


This is a review of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World by Michelle Goldberg (2009).

Reading The Means was a lesson in self-discipline. At times, I was filled with elation and I wanted to run around and jump up and down for the energy it gave me. At other times, I was so frustrated or angry that it was all I could do not to launch the book (which I’d borrowed) across the room at the far wall; “Just take a breath and set the book down…” I would tell this part of myself, and give myself a minute to do something detached. For as sharp and lucid as Goldberg’s writing was a certain parts that could induce such feelings, the overall message of her book put those parts into a deeper, broader, more meaningful context. To that end, she’s a great, readable writer and even if you’re not deeply invested in the “big ideas” of the book, I’d still recommend it if you’re into well-crafted non-fiction prose.

What are the big ideas of this book, anyhow? (From this point on, there will probably be some “plot spoilers”, just to warn you.) That somewhat anthropocentric part of the subtitle, “the Future of the World”, nicely sums one recurring theme: human population on Earth. Perhaps it would be better to say “the Future of the World as We Know It”, but the discussion of population and demography is one which Goldberg examines and dismantles from every angle, from the ironically “anti-imperialist” far right of religious and political America and their far left counterparts, to the Cold War-era voices of Malthusian pushers of the “population bomb” theory.

Another major focus of Goldberg’s admirably well-researched work is the history and development of women’s rights and feminism in the global scheme. I admit to being woefully ignorant of women’s movements in places outside of my immediate experience (i.e. “the West”); Goldberg’s deep research and firsthand accounts of conversations with the major players in the international women’s movement is a crash course in the evolution of perspectives and strategies within that movement.

Another crucial motif is Goldberg’s analysis of “culture versus human rights”. This is an issue with which I have struggled for some time, especially coming out of school with a degree in anthropology (cultural relativism lalala). How can one objectively view the contentious, often incompatible relationship between the relativity of cultural views/values and the fundamental rights of the individual? I felt betrayed when it at first appeared that Goldberg was lending credit to the notion of culture trumping human rights– but that is why one must read this book from beginning to end. The careful examination Goldberg gives to all sides of this argument is edifying and elucidating.

Perhaps the most important theme is that which sums the elements of the subtitle; many, many aspects of this book come down to control, particularly control of female bodies. When put that way, it may sound horrific (what are women– cattle for breeding? Indeed, perhaps…), but the implications go far beyond an individual’s choice to have children, to control of our own persons. The author slowly but clearly builds on this picture, awakening us to the very real and imminent connections between our persons and our collective sustainability within our environments. She manifests some realizations that are impossible to ignore, my favourite of which is this: empowering women (i.e. recognizing women’s rights as human rights) is good for everybody– is good for Earth. (I’m tempted to plot-spoil on this, because it’s such a fantastic point, but because the entirety of Goldberg’s research gradually unfolds this point, I won’t ruin the pleasure of discovering her profound conclusion– you will just have to read it for yourself!)

The struggle between the religious right and more secular liberals is one that overwhelms much of this book (even, I think, at the loss of including other perspectives on women’s rights, including environmentalists’ thoughts on the matter). As they are the major shapers of rights and policies which directly impact people’s lives, it makes sense that she makes this conflict a central focus. In that sense, we get to see the very irritating, very hypocritical ideology of the religious right at work in international politics: their arguments against women’s reproductive rights often assert that the liberal agenda is merely neocolonialism in disguise, motivated purely by the desire to control the “under-developed” world. They frequently voice their concerns that liberal international (human rights) policies disrespect and undermine a culture’s autonomy– i.e. imperialism. What those same religious bodies never admit is that their colonialism has been attempting to alter and “purify” cultures for millennia. Is their denial of the neocolonialism within their own agenda willful ignorance, or do they simply define “culture” and “colonialism” in ways that best suit their own (patriarchal) interests?

Going along with this, something that makes The Means very difficult to digest is that Goldberg pulls no punches when analyzing all sides of an argument. That means we have to hear some hurtful, angering, at times shocking “logic” from some truly misogynist, racist, or nationalistic individuals and organizations. Whether you believe in hearing all sides of a debate because you believe in critical thinking or simply because you want to “know thy enemy”, this aspect of the book often clouds impartiality as it strikes powerful emotional nerves (not Goldberg’s fault, but the partiality of the reader). Take, for instance, the Uganda parliamentary representative who wanted to deny a spouse’s right to not have sex: “Refusing to have sex is the most violent thing a spouse can do” (p. 10). I still haven’t wrapped my head around that one. Or the fact that the world still takes seriously people like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who supports spousal abuse and execution of sodomites, though as to the former, “men should beat their wives lightly, and only as a last resort” (p.164). Or take the blatant 1970s sexism of American employers: “You’ll just work with us for a year or two and then you’ll go and have babies” (p. 69)– for, apparently, maternity and careers are mutually exclusive. Or, in examination of women’s rights in northern India, “To be frank, [a woman] is never consulted whether she will go to bed with [a] man. So there is no freedom of decision” (p. 191). The Means is full of perspectives that are difficult to digest, but they also give a pluralistic view of how humanity sees women– the “point” of women, especially.

That “purpose”, actually, does lend hope in the end. This aspect of Goldberg’s work is neatly summed in this, one of my favourite quotes: “Such religious rivalries, however, masked an equally important polarization, both inside of countries and among them, between secular, liberalizing cultures and traditional, patriarchal ones. One saw women as ends in themselves, human beings with dignity and autonomy. The other treated them as the means of group cohesion and identity whose primary value lay in their relation to men” (p. 169).

For me, this book comes down to two things, which are intrinsically connected: the dismantlement of hierarchy, and the prioritizing of human rights over culture. What is manifest again and again in The Means is that hierarchy hurts the vast majority of the world’s people, whether it comes in the form of Patriarchy, the caste system, racism, or capitalist economic dominance (and truly they are all very much interconnected), true fulfillment of human rights is simply impossible within a hierarchical context (unless, of course, one rejects equality as a fundamental prerequisite of human rights).

The dawning realization is that “culture and tradition is not a monolith” (p. 195); culture, as anthropologists have long droned, is dynamic. It is forever changing, evolving moment to moment, sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically, at times subconsciously and at other times with human imperatives hugely present. This issue, in my opinion, is one that has been growing more and more salient on the world stage. Maybe the major question every human individual needs to decide is “when culture and human rights collide, which should prevail, and who gets to decide?” (p.104). Traditionalists often cite identity, autonomy, and sheer reverence as reasons for the reactionary approach to culture, but to do so is to maintain harmful systems of hierarchy. That is one reason why I so appreciate the perspective of Agnes Pareyio, whom Goldberg interviews at length: “[Pareyio] wants Masai culture to change to embrace strong, educated girls” (p. 147). Pareyio’s ideas can and should be debated by individuals and groups of people, and globalization has made this somewhat unavoidable anyhow. This is an idea which the themes in Goldberg’s book foreground not only through her analysis of worldwide trends, but also through the relation of individuals’ experiences. It is time for humanity to move out of the age of the Cultural Mandate, and for each of us as individuals to engage in the study, shaping, and reshaping of culture, beginning with a collective redefining of cultural values.

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