Three Underestimated Symbols of the New Humanity

by Kent Davis-Packard, Ph.D.

 

Twenty-three women in deep pink saris flash silver knives into the leafy greens that grow just outside the café in Pondicherry, India, where we leisurely enjoy French toast. The women’s faces peer down into the greens. We can see they are smiling.

 

I had taken my Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) graduate students to Bangladesh and India in January 2018 for our “Power of Womenomics” study trek. In a strong Danish accent, the café owner explains that she did not make a tremendous profit, but her café enables dozens of women to escape staying at home with alcoholic husbands refusing to work. We are told this situation plagues much of southern India. The café owner’s business model was based on the social good it would bring about, which had no quantifiable outcome, and yet made all the difference in the lives of those women saved from lifetimes of abuse.

 

That memory lingers as I now consider the many women in India who are housebound. If the statistics are real, many of them are experiencing the domestic abuse this job opportunity and economic independence helped them avoid.

 

At the mouth of the Ganges, in Bangladesh, we had observed another unusual phenomenon. At the Asian University for Women, the Arab literature professor told us that because the university’s goal was to contribute to gender equality across Asia, it instilled in its academic professional life a non-competitive culture so that each professor could focus on advancing women. This contrasted with most university cultures, she observed, in which faculty experience cut throat competition for resources and appointments. Here, she could focus on “what really mattered.”

 

As businesses and institutions find themselves without the usual means by which people “compete” in person through office culture, but find themselves having to realign to something else – an uncertain structure that calls into question the whole point of human competition – I reflect on how the Asian University for Women was already setting a new trend for institutional culture.

 

In Bangalore, India, we engaged with other women breaking old molds, this time in the legal realm. Dr. Corinne Kumar, Founder of the Women’s World Courts, shared a new vision for the court system based on restorative versus retributive justice, allowing for individuals to grow and correct their behavior rather than be condemned for life. It had already proven an effective method for the many societies she worked in around the world facing cycles of civil war owing to resentment, exclusion, marginalization, and revenge. 

 

Once again, as Covid 19 charges through war and conflict zones without discrimination, provoking a standstill even in the most intractable regions such as Yemen, I consider how these patterns were already emerging in the world among women, and that women are playing a bigger role than imagined.

 

Women’s role goes beyond merely being an essential “ingredient” to peace and security. Women are the conduits of a new pattern for humanity that is being amplified by the presence of Covid 19. It is not that we need to include women because they are “half of humanity,” but rather because they are built to be agents of this transformation.

 

It is not every woman, but rather the so-called “feminine” embodied by so many women and some men that is at play in the world and is slowly assuming its rightful place in form and structure. The symbols associated with femininity, ironically, are deemed as “weak.” But upon closer examination, they are only deemed as such because their extreme power is feared.

 

As my students and I were deciding on a logo for a new curricular program focused on women’s contributions to economic progress and peace and security two years ago, I observed a strange phenomenon that, I believe, remains at the core of why we have not achieved human equality as of yet and therefore merits deeper meditation.

 

“The butterfly is too girly and weak – like doves and hearts,” a few students pontificated. The students were embarrassed to be associated with such “softness,” such “femininity.” They asked for a “more masculine” logo, because, they said, “that is what would be taken seriously in the world.”

 

The butterfly – what is it?  A being that eats the bed on which it was born and in doing so sheds its skin three times as it rapidly expands by the hour. It then hangs upside down and forms itself into a chrysalis. Inside, tissues, limbs and organs transform into a creature of breathtaking beauty. It drops its chrysalis, pumps blood into wings – beats them until it takes flight – ascending far above the flight paths of birds – soaring thousands of miles in the high winds above the clouds.

 

I considered the butterfly’s dramatic physical transformation and the strength required to undertake this life processes. The monarch butterfly will fly up to 2,000 miles on a single journey over its lifetime of two months to reach a warmer climate, using photoreceptors inside their eyes to follow the angle of the sun. I then considered its association with femininity. I asked myself whether there was anything “weak” about either the butterfly or femininity, from a “serious” academic standpoint. The ultimate symbol of the feminine – the mother – gives birth to another through her own body.  Is there anything weak about this process?

 

What about the other symbols associated with femininity of which my students were ashamed? Let us take the heart. Is the knowing of the heart less than the knowing of the intellect? Which one is more powerful? Which one knows anything? To draw on one of the academy’s most esteemed luminaries, French scientist Blaise Pascal wrote in his classic work, Pensees, “Nous connaissons la verite non seulement par la raison, main encore par le coeur” – “we know the truth not only by reason, but also by the heart.”[1]

 

In our contemporary academic culture, however, reason, or intellect, is treated as the sole and most valuable tool humans have to use in the world. Once again, in this period of absolute uncertainty in which humanity faces life and death, what we have put on a pedestal in the past is now being questioned. Our values are being re-evaluated.

 

I would like to suggest that this seemingly benign inversion of values in our subconscious that negatively impacts our views of femininity, and therefore of women, as well as the powerful symbols associated with them, lies the core of that which prevents humanity from achieving its full potential to date.

 

Fortunately, Covid 19 is contributing to opening new possibilities for human relations. Petty competition and hollow entitlement because of one’s social and economic status, sex, or cultural background is being eroded by consciousness of something humans are capable of that goes beyond mere intellect.

 

The human ego drives intellect, but something else drives the heart. Carl Jung contended that only love is powerful enough to dissolve the human ego.[2] If love is more powerful than the ego, then why would love not be feared? Insomuch as the heart is associated with femininity, which is associated with transformation, why would femininity, or gender studies – that which uncovers and deconstructs many of these inverted values based on the desires of the ego in our culture – not be feared?

 

Gender and women’s studies are often relegated to that which is “less serious,” “less academic,” and therefore to be marginalized, not because they are less valuable or serious, but precisely because they threaten the false intellectual structure upon which our academic institutions are built. Moving beyond that structure is essential to human growth and maturity, and therefore the responsibility of our institutions of higher education.

 

It is fear of transformation that has caused our national subconscious to deem the woman, the heart, and the butterfly “silly,” “weak,” and not to be taken seriously. Each has proven strong enough to unite opposites – to dissolve binary thought – to undergo total and complete transformation from one being into another – to see unities rather than difference – and the ego is incapable of doing that. That’s the secret.

 

Gender issues are deeply connected to the preparation, threat, and use of violence to serve political ends, which is the focal point of strategic studies.[3] This field is one of the most prominent fields in leading international relations graduate school programs, especially in the United States. Everyone knows that rape has been used as a weapon of war for time immemorial – that women’s participation, or lack thereof, is a key factor to determining who wins and loses, and how long conflicts last, and why they last. Excluding gender issues when discussing strategic studies is to exclude fundamental variables in theories and outcomes of war.

 

In my “Women, Peace, and Security” course, I had my students read excerpts of literature of tremendous beauty – because the class had to discover what had been denied us by the institution that could not integrate that which inherently breaks it apart: both what is associated with femininity and all that transforms consciousness.

 

Devalued systematically by schools of international relations, women’s contributions and art would change the self-oriented structure by which our international systems are currently dominated. In art, one loses oneself in beauty, which is a path to love. The ego, on the other hand, inspires the serving of individual interests.

 

One faculty administrator called the idea of teaching a politics course on literature and poetry that had been banned owing to political censorship a “gimmick.” I suppose he has not given much consideration to The Labyrinth of Solitude in which Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz sounds an alarm at the danger of this kind of intentional exclusion of art from mainstream culture – “It is hardly strange, then,” he writes, “that society should punish love and its testimony – poetry – with equal malevolence, condemning them to the confused, clandestine world of the forbidden, the absurd, the abnormal. Nor is it strange that both love and poetry explode in strange, pure forms: a scandal, a crime, a poem.”[4]

 

Azar Nafisi, who once taught a course called “Cultural Conversations” – which had a long line of students on the waitlist, including myself – emphasized in her New York Times bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran that it is art that allows humans to enter into another’s world and empathize with someone who on the surface appears very different than oneself. Art is responsible for making it impossible to murder another human being. She writes: “It is only through literature that one can put oneself in someone else’s shoes and understand the other’s different and contradictory sides and refrain from becoming too ruthless.”[5]

 

Besides the “serious” courses taught in international relations graduation schools such as economics, comparative politics, and finance, can there be more valuable subject matter than that which awakens a future world leader’s sense of empathy for other human beings? Do we not sorely lament the lack of empathy in our current leadership?

 

In his essay The National Value of Art, 20th century philosopher Sri Aurobindo whose birthday is celebrated on Indian Independence Day – outlines the vital role of art in education as a way for humankind to overcome their lower motivational forces – lust, greed, anger, selfishness, and pride. Citing Aristotle, Aurobindo writes:

 

“[Art and poetry] provide a field in which these pressing claims of the animal can be excluded and the emotions, working disinterestedly for the satisfaction of the heart and the imagination alone can do the work of katharsis, emotional purification, of which Aristotle spoke. Cittasuddhi, the purification of the heart, is the appointed road by which man arrives at his higher fulfillment, and, if it can be shown that poetry and art are powerful agents towards that end, their supreme importance is established.”[6]

 

We need to know the transformative power of love and art on culture and our national consciousness. It is time we awaken our students to knowing themselves in others – so that we do not repeat the cycles of hatred, sexism, racism, bigotry, and ignorance that have dominated world history – so that we can love. We need to read great works of literature because they open us to new realms and possibilities.

 

Just as art can move humanity to change its behavior, so does the feminine force play a role in the transformation of human relations. Both are equally feared and kept at bay from political life and therefore from the student of politics and international relations, until now.

 

Perhaps Covid 19 will inspire more graduate students towards unity, collaboration, and service, since all three of these principles are proving to be what the world needs most. They are all attributes of love –

 

Could it be that the one area in which we are weakest as academic institutions is the very area that would enable us to produce the most effective and transformative diplomats, policymakers, and other professionals in the fields of international relations? Has it not and forever been the greatest artists who have transformed our societies and thus human consciousness? There is a reason Pascal is remembered, and it has nothing to do with the intellect. To change our international relations curriculum to incorporate gender studies, and its parallel in transformative power, art, would be to destroy the foundation upon which war is enacted, which is exactly what our goal should be in schools dedicated to the study of international relations.

 

I have witnessed with my students in Bangladesh and India, and now through Women Forward International’s programs in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America, new patterns that involve organizations collaborating with students and one another to care for humanity. It is our responsibility as educators to expose our students to such modes of being and potential.

 

All of these new initiatives, many founded and led by women, represent a new force to be reckoned with for the modern academic – and for modern humankind as we face the prospect of imminent death, and life, every day. As I travel for our research projects, I see a myriad of women positively affecting their communities in ways never seen before. I wonder what awaits our students of international relations – our future leaders – who are so bright and so deserving of their full inheritance as human beings, and as butterflies.

 

the butterfly 

                the dove

                                 the heart

Cafe in Pondicherry, India that employs primarily Indian women at risk of domestic abuse. 

Family in South India

Students at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh, which serves women from 18 nations primarily through educational scholarships

Dr. Corinne Kumar, International Coordinator, World Courts of Women and Co-Founder, Vimochana Forum for Human Rights, speaks to my SAIS students in Bangalore, India, 2018.

[1] Pascal, Pensees. Bordas Collection Classique Garnier, Paris: 1991, 105.

[2] See Carl Jung’s discussion of the “ego death” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, first published in 1933, and Psychology and Alchemy, first published in 1944. 

[3] The academic literature in this field is clear, well-proven, and well-disseminated. “Higher levels of female participation in parliament reduce the risks of civil war” – (Melander, Gender Equality and Conflict); “as the percentage of women in parliament increases by five percent, a state is five times less likely to use violence when faced with an international crisis,” Caprioli and Boyer, “Gender, Violence, and International Crisis,” 514; “A study of 40 peace processes in 35 countries over the last three decades showed that when women’s groups were able to effectively influence a peace process, an agreement was almost always reached […] When women did not participate, the rate of reaching an agreement was much lower.” (Research from the Broadening Participation Project led by Thania Paffenholz. See O’Reilly, OSuilleabhain, and Paffenholz, “Reimagining Peacemaking;” and that “Measuring the presence of women as negotiators, mediators, witnesses, and signatories to 182 signed peace agreements between 1989 and 2011, this analysis shows that women’s participation has its greatest impact in the long term: an agreement is 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years if women participate in its creation.” (Statistical analysis by Laurel Stone, as featured in O’Reilly, O Suilleabhain, and Paffenholz, “Reimagining Peacemaking,” 12-13. In 2015, Valerie Hudson demonstrated through empirical evidence that inequity in family laws affecting the status of women is the number one indicator of state instability – more than economic or political causal factors.

[4] Octavio Paz, The Labryrinthe of Solitude, 200.

[5] Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Random House, New York: 2004, 118.

[6] Sri Aurobindo, “The National Value of Art,” Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, 1922, 16.

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