Politics of Intolerance, Gender and Education

Youths are our future?

Youths are the future of Europe, we are told. I also do believe in the young generation and its potential to change the world. For this reason I decided to use the only way that is available to me to shape the young people’s consciousness and to teach them values I believe in – gender equality and tolerance regarding other lifestyles: I am teaching an obligatory course on the History of Culture at an Eastern European university.

The reaction of my students: ‘The first feminists were too radical in their demands.’

Recently, I was quite surprised by the reaction of my students to ideas of gender equality and tolerance.
We started with 19th century history and the analysis of postulates, aims and ideas of the first wave of feminist movements. The first feminists demanded the right to vote, right to education and to work. As usually, I asked my students about their impressions on the texts they were asked to read. I was astonished by their comments , which went like this: ‘those women did not want equality, but they wanted to dominate men’; ‘they were too radical in their demands’; ‘they wanted too much’; ‘those ideas were absurd’.  Asked to precisely  point out what was absurd in these demands, my students finally agreed with the postulates. What had caused their first, rejecting reaction was the word ‘feminist’. It seems that everything ‘feminist’ is automatically evaluated as radical and absurd, even without the slightest consideration of the ideas proposed.

The 19th century discourse and contemporary political discourse on homosexuality

We continued the analysis of the 19th century wordview and came to the difficult topic of homosexuality and lesbianism. My students were very uneasy with discussing this topic. Interestingly, they felt very satisfied or even relieved by the explanation that in the 19th century homosexuality was considered to be a disease. They eagerly started commenting on therapy methods. Was it because they recognized a similarity between the 19th century discourse and the contemporary polish political discourse on homosexuality? Only later, I realized that I was not sure whether they knew that since the 19th century approaches and interpretations of homosexuality have changed.

Another surprise came when we were discussing sexuality, contraception and abortion in Poland within the 1930’s. Abortion was the most common method of fertility control then and it was believed that until the third month of pregnancy a fetus is just a kind of menstrual blood. Regarding this attitude my students reacted saying: ‘those women, they did not know that they were killing a child’ and ‘doctors in the 1930’s must have been unaware about that they were killing a human being’. Apparently, 15 years of abortion debate in Poland, and of teaching religion in schools significantly influenced the mentality of the young. I had to realize that for many of my students the right to abortion is not a women’s right. It is a crime.

Gender equality? No thanks.

Currently, in Poland the ruling right-wing coalition, is promoting a rather conservative vision of women’s roles. A combination of the promotion of conservative gender roles, homophobia and nationalism has become the legitimate (and dominant) political discourse. One of the first decisions of the new government that came into office in 2005 was to close the office of the Plenipotentiary for an Equal Status of Women and Men. It was announced that a special office for equality issues was not necessary. The Polish political discourse is not interested in women’s rights or gender equality; it is interested in family and mothers. It cannot imagine a woman outside the family, a woman as an individual equal to man.

This backlash is also reflecting in the language used in the public sphere. According to philosopher Magdalena Środa, Polish right-wing discourse starts its politics of exclusion at the linguistic level: “ ‘Freedom’ is associated with ‘a civilization of death’ (…), ‘liberalism’ with theft and poverty, ‘equality’ with homosexuality and Europe. The words equality, as well as socialism, are replaced by solidity. They do not speak about abortion but about child-killing.” Polish right wing nationalistic discourse not only rejects women’s rights, but also deliberately situates itself against European values and the European Union.

Homosexuality and other diseases

As the right-wing political discourse promotes the ‘natural family’ and heterosexuality, homophobia has become a legitimized part of the Polish political discourse. Homosexuals are accused of being the reason of all evils, such as the cultural crisis, the crisis of the family and the reduction of the birth rate. ‘Homosexuality’ has lately replaced ‘feminism’ as the alleged danger to the Polish family.

Homosexuality does not only stand for a sexual preference any longer; it has become a political label that those who are concerned about gender equality and freedom of choice are attributed with. For example, when during the Parliamentary debate on the political program of new government one member of parliament (MP) stated that the government’s politics were anti-European and anti-feminine, a voice from the audience shouted: “Homosexuals!”

In the right-wing political discourse, homosexuality is frequently described as ‘disease’, ‘perversion’, ‘sin’ and compared to such sexual preferences as pedophilia or zoophilia. This language has become visible in the public debates on same-sex relationships and lately appeared in the Parliamentary debates. In the debate on an equal status of woman and men, which took place before the elections, one MP stated that homosexuals should “mobilize mind and body to cure themselves from this disease.” Another MP argued that an equality-law will only protect “various queers and others deviants.” After the elections the homophobic discourse has become even more powerful.

The intellectual Maria Janion shows how the homophobic discourse is strongly associated with nationalism. On the one hand, homosocial communities have certain elements of a homosexual fascination. On the other hand, homosexuality is threatening their patriarchal structures, so they strongly emphasize heterosexuality. Moreover, a clearly defined enemy is crucial for sustaining a national identity: “An enemy is necessary for the group’s integrity, but also to maintain the purity of the male national myth, free from ‘poison’ and ‘disease’ – this disease was Jewish in the past, it is homosexual now.”

Education for change?

Political discourses are responsible for the construction of particular social practices. They reproduce the social status quo or transform it, so they are powerful means of shaping public opinions and a mentality. For this reason the dominance of the conservative discourse in the Polish political scene is disquieting. It enforces gender inequality, nationalism and homophobia. In Polish culture several shifts in meaning are occuring: from woman to mother, from individual to family, from homosexuality to perversion, and from European to national. However, I still do believe in the young generation. Maybe struggling with certains ideas on gender equality reproduced by a political discourse will demand more effort, but I believe that it is a necessary effort. Education is a powerful tool for social change. I still do believe that by teaching I can slightly change the mentality of the young generation and of the future world I will have to live in.

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