The Nude Photo Revolutionaries Calendar

In November, I wrote about Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, the Egyptian student and atheist who posted nude photos of herself as a protest against Islamist suppression of women's bodies and voices. Her explanation of what she was seeking to achieve is so perfect, I have to quote it again:


"Put on trial the artists' models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity, then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hangups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression."

In a society where religious morality police presume to dictate what is and isn't an acceptable means of self-expression, this was an incredible act of daring, and it's still not out of the question that the theocrats may succeed in punishing her for it. Ironically, by trying to get Elmahdy hauled into court for demonstrating that she possesses the same body parts as other human beings, they've proved both the point and the effectiveness of this manner of protest.

In a show of support and solidarity, the human-rights campaigner Maryam Namazie put together a Nude Photo Revolutionary Calendar (potentially NSFW), which has just been released for purchase or free download. Twelve prominent female writers, bloggers and activists posed for the calendar, each with a statement explaining why they chose to participate. (From what I understand, the submission process was open to men as well, but they didn't get any suitable entries. If you'd prefer a male calendar, there's always this one (definitely NSFW)).

This project has its detractors, of course, like this person who complained that the calendar is "encouraging people to sexualize women". This criticism makes the elementary mistake of confusing nudity and sex. You can be blatantly sexual while fully clothed; you can be naked without being sexual at all.

There were also these comments from I Blame the Patriarchy, which took a similar but more subtle tack:

I allege that, in a patriarchy, all images of women, particularly but not limited to those that involve nudity... are inherently pornographic. I allege this not because I believe that women are themselves inherently degraded pornbot livestock, but because the imagery is always realized under the auspices of — and for an audience acclimated to — a culture of pornsick patriarchal oppression. Images of women can only be interpreted from within a framework of misogyny that universally defines women in terms of male desire, male fantasy, male incontinence, and male power.

The argument from IBTP is that, even if a woman's body is depicted with no erotic intent, it will still be interpreted as pornographic, because that's the way our society is conditioned to view any image of a woman. I acknowledge there's some truth to that, but this argument strikes me as far too pessimistic: it seems to be saying that it's impossible to fight sexism, because men will always view women as objects for their gratification and there's no way to change that.

The whole point of Elmahdy's protest, and of this calendar, was to defeat this prejudice that women's bodies are always and intrinsically sexual. This belief leads Islamists to demand they wear veils, burqas, and other smothering clothing designed to dehumanize them and make them invisible, so as not to tempt men into uncontrollable lust. Ironically, this is the same belief that in our society exerts a constant pressure on women to be sexy - the same belief, but two very different manifestations.

If this calendar were like most images of women in the mass media - depicting only women who are drawn from a tiny and statistically unrepresentative slice of the population, encouraged to starve and mistreat themselves to maintain an unnatural weight and highly idealized body shape, and even after all that, digitally altered to remove all the blemishes and imperfections of actual bodies and promote a standard of beauty that no human being could ever realistically achieve - then complaints like these would have a point. As it is, I saw nothing in the calendar other than normal people, with a variety of ages and body types. No one viewing it could seriously believe that it was created to inspire lust.

The theocrats, who despise their own bodies and their own sex drives, are fervently against lust and view it as the responsibility of women to avoid provoking them to it. On the other hand, there are some circles within our society that are obsessed with sex, that pursue it far more than is healthy, and view it as the responsibility of women to be as sexy as possible, to dress and display themselves solely for men's gratification. In either case, the burden is put on women to conform to society's expectations. Protests like this one are clever because they confound both sets of unreasonable expectations at once: nude without being sexual, showing their bodies without acquiescing to inflexible, reductive and harmful standards about how to do that.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.


Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.