Month: January 2018

Respectability and the protective logic of liberal masculinity in Australia’s arms trade

On the 29th of January Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a $3.8 billion fund to encourage local arms manufacturers to increase their trade with the aim of Australia becoming one of the top 10 arms exporters in the world. The reason behind the push, he explained, was twofold. First, he explained that given the size of Australia’s defence budget (around 12th largest in the world) “we should be a lot higher up the scale.” Second, he explained that Australian workers needed the manufacturing jobs. The new arms initiate, named the Defence Export Facility, and the justifications used to back it up are classic protective moves in the handbook of liberal masculinity.

Malcolm Turnbull stands in front of a Bushmaster Infantry Mobility Vehicle

For any student of feminist international relations, this distinction will be a familiar one. In 1992 Ann Tickner wrote about how different models of masculinity are deployed in international relations, showing how notions of manhood are deployed by states to justify their actions. Turnbull’s justifications for increasing the export of arms fits comfortably within the liberal logic of protection. Like most liberal articulations of institutional masculinity, the violence behind the decision to invest almost 4 billion dollars in promoting the arms trade is hidden behind economic ‘rationalism’ and vague allusions to protection.

 

In this mode the arms trade is good for Australia because it will provide jobs and a stronger military. However, unlike more robust articulations of militant nationalism, it does this through promoting the market economy. The program makes militarism respectable by creating “tens of thousands of jobs for Australian manufacturers.” This kind of approach does not contain the violent ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric of recent American militarism but couches masculine protection in a veneer of economic necessity and mutual benefit. But like most liberal logics of protection relies on an impressive capacity for double-speak and structural violence.

Australia, like the Scandinavian social democracies we often hope to be compared to, makes a good show of trying to position ourselves as enlightened (liberal) global citizens by quickly adopting humanitarianism, human rights and a gender-sensitive approach to foreign policy. However, like Sweden, our humanitarianism has centred much more on presenting a ‘human face’ to the world through charity and another posturing while simultaneously pursuing an economic agenda that supports the structural conditions behind the violence. Or as Jacqui True has put it in relation to Sweden: “How is it possible to sell arms (when, regardless of whom you first sell them to, they often end up perpetrating crimes) and at the same time promote a humanitarian, human rights approach to foreign policy?”

At a time when the world is particularly preoccupied with the overt masculine violence of Donald Trump, it is worth being reminded of the more insidious logic of masculine liberal protection. Throughout his tenure as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has striven to distance his ‘leadership style’ from that of his predecessor Tony Abbot. Abbot sort to live up to perform the kind of over exaggerated machismo of militant nationalism which might make a men’s rights activist blush (and Mark Latham swoon). This entailed threatening to ‘shirtfront’ Vladimir Putin and never squandering a chance to show his explicitly demonstrate his patriarchal credentials for a howling mob.  In contrast, Turnbull has consistently tried to position himself as a rational liberal businessman, avoiding the most brutal jingoism of Australian nationalism in favour of dispassionate arguments for order and profitability.

Tony Abbott embracing muscular nationalism

When a leader like Turnbull puts forward the argument that “we don’t see threats from our neighbours in our region, but nonetheless all countries must plan ahead” the structural violence of Australian foreign policy can hide much more easily than behind a populist leader. But that doesn’t make it less violent. When pundits in the Australian left have visible conniptions over the explicit brutality of Trump’s rhetoric and foreign policy it is easy to forget the respectable violence of Australian politics.

The politics of respectability are particularly dangerous in Australia’s politics because of the way that they are used to silence critical voices on settler colonialism, militarism, heteronormativity and racism. Most recently this has flared up in rabid attempts to sack Tarneen Onus-Williams from the Koorie Youth Council in Victoria for pointing out the colonial foundation of the Australian state, but the use of gendered respectability to circumvent radical critique is deeply embedded in the structure of Australian politics. In justifying the right to rule liberal masculinity relies on the politics of respectability to compartmentalise issues and deflect critique. Working against violence demand an attentiveness to how masculine logics can cloak themselves in respectability through contrast with more overt examples of masculine violence. Liberal politicians rely on the promising to save politics from the aggressive masculinity of more overtly militant men and from the disorder of radical change. When actors present their militarism in respectable terms, it’s imperative to remember how the logic of protection operates to make structural violence appear natural, inevitable and justified.

 

 

David Duriesmith is a UQ Fellow at the School of Political Science and International Studies within the University of Queensland. His research interests are on pro-feminism, masculinities, the transformation of war, and peacebuilding. His current research looks at attempts to transform masculinities after large-scale violence through peacebuilding programs. He is the author of Masculinity and new war: The gendered dynamics of contemporary armed conflict.

Why Feminism is Integral to Understanding ‘Conflict Related Sexual Violence’

Last year, I was invited to participate in a couple of workshops on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). One was academic, with a specific focus on how we can know something about sexual violence in war and the methods used by researchers to come to know this violence. The other was more practitioner-oriented, and was attended by some of the key players of international policy-making on CRSV. While both were invigorating and inspiring events, what struck me from discussions in both is how far removed the study of wartime sexual violence has come from its feminist roots.

In recent decades, academic and policy interest on sexual violence in war has grown exponentially. Far from its origins on the margins of studies of war, sexual violence is now a central topic and efforts to understand its causes and consequences span the disciplines interested in armed conflict, political violence, international security, and humanitarian crises. However, as the issue has become mainstream, much of its early feminist-informed analyses have been lost to increasingly positivist socio-political and scientific approaches to understand this violence.

But much is lost in this maneuver. As I’ve written about elsewhere, the harmonized ‘rape as a weapon of war’ narrative that has been produced through the elevation of sexual violence to the international security agenda “has produced an unsustainable and ineffectual paradigm that is based ultimately on the fetishization of this violence.”

While early feminist analyses of rape in war contributed to this amalgamation of all forms of CRSV as a single, coherent phenomenon, recent corrective efforts by critical scholars to disaggregate and contextualize CRSV has resulted in a near abandonment of feminist frames for understanding this violence. While feminists have pointed out that rape in war, like rape in so-called times of ‘peace’, cannot be understood except through an analysis of patriarchal power disparities between the sexes, some have argued that because patriarchy is a constant structural feature of societies, it cannot be causal or independently explanatory for sexual violence.

But if we throw the baby out with the bathwater, as we have seen done in not only scholarship, but also policy and advocacy on sexual violence in armed conflict, we end up with the explanation that either men are animals who can’t control their insatiable sexual urges, for which war provides the convenient breakdown of social barriers to their animal impulses; or, that rape and sexual violence is genderless, equivalently perpetrated and experienced by members of both sexes, and thus understandable only as either an innate human quality or the result of a few ‘bad apples.’

The value of sexual violence must be seen through the lens of sexual politics. That is, the recognition that (the physical act of) sex and sexuality are deeply set within human social relations and comprehensible only in relation to “the variety of attitudes and values to which culture subscribes” (Millet 1970, 23). Such a perspective invites us to critically interrogate the ways in which sexual violence is enacted within a system of sexual domination, which simultaneously inscribes meaning and power to violated/violating bodies and to the act itself. This meaning and power is not isolated to CRSV, but visible also in the typical link between cruelty and sexuality in our everyday ‘peacetime’ societies, as well.

That is because sexuality is a social construct borne out of patriarchal relations. As such, sexuality is made meaningful as a relation of dominance and submission, gendered through dichotomous symbolisms that associate dominance with the masculine and submission with the feminine. In this way, the gendered nature of sexual violence comes from its construction within a system of patriarchy, while the gendered effects are not limited to the biological sex of either the victim or perpetrator.

Ultimately, the study of sexual violence in armed conflict requires feminism in order to understand how power and sexuality are mutually constituted in ways that make sexual forms of violence particularly egregious and humiliating, reaping for the perpetrator personal, social, political, and/or economic dividends.

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.

Sex and Death in the Irrational World of Nuclear Defense

The blogosphere is a-Twitter with Donald Trump’s recent reaction to a speech made by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un as part of his New Year’s address to the nation. In the speech, he stated:

“The US cannot declare war against us. The entire US territories are within our firing range and the nuclear missile button is right there on my desk,”

“We have secured powerful deterrence against the nuclear threat from the US.”

His speech was followed by a series of social media posts flaunting his nuclear capabilities:

In response, Donald Trump, in usual fashion, responded via social media with a tweet now heard ’round the world:

While many have noted this tweet as the latest in a series of misguided, reactionary social media responses to global political issues that have come to define Trump’s presidency, the obvious analogy to penile (dys)function has been less commented on.

In 1987, Carol Cohn published what has become one of the germinal works of feminist theory in international relations: “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.” The piece is an auto-ethnography and participant observation based on her time at a university center on defense technology and arms control, “The Center.” She sheds light on the gendered language through which unfathomably destruction and mass death becomes rationalized, palatable, and even funny in The Center. The ‘technostrategic’ language used by Defense Intellectuals obscures the physical realities of these weapons and instead  is “abstract, sanitized, full of euphemisms…sexy and fun to use.”

In particular, she notes the sexualized vocabulary of the nuclear standoff during the Cold War found the language used by defense staff suffused with sexual, mostly phallic imagery that creates a sexualized intimacy between the developers and handlers of the weapon and the weapon itself. She notes: “homoerotic excitement, heterosexual domination, the drive toward competency and mastery, the pleasures of membership in an elite and privileged group.” The association of nuclear power with male sexual prowess, she finds, mirrors the famous US Marine Corps chant: “this is my rifle, this is my gun, one is for killing the other’s for fun.”

How does feminist theory help us understand Trump’s reaction to Kim Jong-Un? Chris Cillizza, writing for CNN, notes:

“In Trump’s mind, the first, second and third most important measures of success are size. Everything he is involved with must be the biggest, the tallest, the most well-attended, the most expensive, the best.
A bit of armchair psychology would suggest that relentless focus on size is born of insecurity.”

Yet, we cannot understand such insecurity manifesting through obsession with size without feminist analysis. As Penny Strange wrote about the arms race, in 1989,

“striving for mastery and superiority [is] a striking feature of a male-dominated society; we see it as not only widespread, but also admired, desired and cultivated in half the human race, and an acceptable mode of political discourse and international relations.”

This is only made possible because international relations exist in a global system of patriarchy, wherein the physical ability to subjugate someone or something “becomes necessary proof of manhood.” That subjugation need not be only physical, but economic, political and social as well. Each is merely an expression of the same underlying drive for dominance and “are convertible one to the other.”

Of course, Trump (nor Kim Jong-Un) would be the first head of state to act out of masculine anxities. David Halberstam accounts for the behaviour of US leaders in the Vietnam War, noting that:

“President Lyndon B. Johnson had always been haunted by the idea that he would be judged as being insufficiently manly for the job…. He had unconsciously divided people around him between men and boys. Men were the activists, doers, who conquered business empires, who acted instead of talked, who made it in the world and had the respect of other men. Boys were the talkers and the writers and the intellectuals who sat around thinking and criticising and doubting instead of doing…. Hearing that one of the administration was becoming a dove on Vietnam, Johnson said ‘Hell, he has to squat to piss.'” (Emphasis added).

What these analyses point to is the limited scope we have for de-escalation when one’s willingness and ability to “push the button” is so tied up to their self-conception of worth constructed within the norms of masculinity under patriarchy. But also, that a simple change of leadership may not be sufficient, when those leaders are in many ways reflective of wider societal expectations of manly behaviour when at the helm (or fingertips) of the nuclear ‘button.’

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.

Reading a life: Interpreting life-history transcripts honestly

“Life history research brings us to the level of personal experience. Where you are not just dealing with figures, abstractions or cultural categories, we are dealing with real living breathing people and their experiences.” Raewyn Connell

 

“I must confess that I found the analysis of my data intensely problematic. I wanted to be faithful to the methodological approach I had decided upon and to treat the interview data simply as discursive artefacts, but this was complicated by the fact that I was analysing texts that I had created through an encounter with another person. I breathed the same air as these people, they welcomed me into their offices, and we talked beyond the research, sharing small details of our lives. Deconstructing their words… felt decidedly wrong, as though I were trying to catch them out, trip them up, or twist their words. As I made notes, I could hear them in my head: “That’s not what I meant!”

Laura Shepherd (2016) Gender, UN peacebuilding, and the politics of space: Locating legitimacy, Oxford University Press, New York. p.29.

In 2012 I was given the opportunity to travel to Bangkok to take part in a clinic organised by Partners for Prevention (P4P) on the life-history research. The clinic, which was run by Raewyn Connell, went through the basics of conducting life history research and how to read life-history transcripts. In the clinic, we were trained in how to conduct biographical interviews, and how to interpret interviews which narrate individuals lives through a critical feminist lens. In the coming year, I had the opportunity to work on some life-history research with P4P which explored men’s relationship with gender-equality after the Aceh conflict. These transcripts were the result of interviews conducted by UN Women Indonesia that had been transcribed and translated into English.

I found working with these transcripts difficult. Based on reading the record of a few interviews I began to try and interpret the trajectory of 12 men’s lives, as a way to explore their pathways towards and away from violent practice. Reading the transcripts, I tried to become familiar with these men’s lives, where they were born, what they valued, how they had lived and whom they loved. With more than 140,000 words of interview transcript, the stories they told were complex, contradictory and often difficult to interpret. While I was happy with the research chapter that came from this work (exploring anti-colonial politics and men’s support for gender equality), I felt awkward about trying to write the lives of men I hadn’t met.

The most recent life-history research I have conducted, on men’s pathways out of jihadi networks in Indonesia, presented a very different challenge. This research, conducted with Noor Huda Ismail, was conducted in person, with multiple interview sessions, long periods of hanging out, eating, talking about politics and the news, smoking clove cigarettes, and with a few former fighters driving around Central Java. This research did include discrete periods of interviewing but was surrounded by far longer periods where we chatted about unrelated topics, such as their thoughts on Donald Trump (not positive), their favourite rapper (Tupac over Biggie), or the traffic in Jakarta (hellish).

This research has presented a very different challenge to the research with P4P. This time the struggle was more a process of trying to disentangle my own experiences, attachments, and thoughts about someone from what the transcript actually said. Laura Shepherd discusses the difficulty of interpreting the words of participants with whom she had met in person and spent time with. She makes the case that for her own purposes, interviews can still be used as part of discourse analysis because:

“an interview is a limited encounter. Even loosely structured interviews, such as those I conducted, have a beginning, a middle, and an end, at which point the research participant is thanked for their time and the researcher leaves the building. The boundaries around the research encounter, therefore, produce a text that is also bounded, which lends itself well to discourse analysis.”

Laura Shepherd (2016) Gender, UN peacebuilding, and the politics of space: Locating legitimacy, Oxford University Press, New York. p.27.

While the research I have been conducting is quite different in approach and assumptions from Shepherd’s (being life-history work rather than discourse analysis), the difficulty of disentangling the personal encounters and the transcripts is consistent. Her comments on the uncomfortable feeling that the research process was intended to “catch them out, trip them up, or twist their words” is something I continue to struggle with.

Reading gender into transcripts involves looking at comments, stories and experiences which the interviewee doesn’t take to be primarily about gender, and interpreting them through a feminist lens. For both projects where I have used life-history methods, this has involved drawing on historical information, social theory and feminist knowledge to chart gender relations as the “linking thread… along which violence runs.”

Charting these relations is likely to go beyond, or even in contrast to, how an individual thinks about their own experience. To draw out the gendered experience this relies on reinterpreting individuals’ stories through frameworks which are likely to feel very alien to the person who has opened up to narrate their life to you. Or as Raewyn Connell  puts it, “life history data doesn’t stand alone, we need to compare it to all kinds of other sources as aids to interpretation for the information we have.” Drawing on these sources to interpret the transcript in ways the participant might not expect does feel uncomfortable within the research relationship.

This results in treating the interview transcript as an authority in recording the biography of an individual which is then employed to make broader social or political claims about their milieu which they are likely to disagree with. This creates a tension between reading transcripts as a freestanding record and viewing them as recordings of a particular conversation within a broader relationship. Interpreting the social significance of transcripts honestly relies on comparisons which fit uncomfortably with the messy and complex lives of people you have come to know.

David Duriesmith is a UQ Fellow at the School of Political Science and International Studies within the University of Queensland. His research interests are on pro-feminism, masculinities, the transformation of war, and peacebuilding. His current research looks at attempts to transform masculinities after large-scale violence through peacebuilding programs. He is the author of Masculinity and new war: The gendered dynamics of contemporary armed conflict.