Friday, September 21, 2012

Ceci n'est pas un vagin - The "Vagina" Problem

"I say it because it's an invisible word - a word that stirs up anxiety, awkwardness, contempt, and disgust."

- Eve Ensler, in reference to the word "vagina", in her preface to the 1998 edition of The Vagina Monologues

"Because that word is either so taboo or surrounded with negative connotations or draped in shame or medicalised, it's really important to take it back."

- Naomi Wolf, on her choice of title for Vagina, as quoted in the Guardian in 2012

Naomi Wolf is a little late to the party on this one. In 1996, 16 years ago, Eve Ensler decided to write a series of monologues addressing issues of female sexuality, violence against women, reproduction, and all sorts of things connected with women's bodies. In her preface to the 1998 edition of the book, Ensler indicated that she had been ambivalent on the question of what word should be used to encapsulate the physical locus of so much female experience - the "entire area and all its parts" - and acknowledged the fact that she was warping an established term. This is what she said:

"I say it because we haven't come up with a word that's more inclusive, that really describes the entire area and all its parts. 'Pussy' is probably a better word, but it has so much baggage connected with it. And besides, I don't think most of us have a clear idea of what we're talking about when we say 'pussy'. 'Vulva' is a good word; it speaks more specifically, but I don't think most of us are clear what the vulva includes."

Really? Because thanks to you, Ms. Ensler, most of us are no longer clear on what the vagina includes.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

An Atheist Prayer for Peace

So, Friday is the International Day of Prayer for Peace. This is a thorny issue for me, because as an atheist I don't pray. In fact, I think that prayer is wishful thinking, and without action it is a method of self-placation that doesn't accomplish anything. My gut response is "why wish for peace, when you can work toward it?"

But then I think that not only is peace a worthy, lofty goal, and one that we should certainly turn our minds and hearts and hands toward, but part of seeking peace is opening myself up to the idea that prayer is sacred and meaningful and powerful to millions of people, and I need to respect that. And I want, as an atheist, to be a part of a movement and a moment that strives for peace. So I've been thinking about how I can do that. Here's what I've come up with:

1) Practice peace. There are so many variations on the "think globally, act locally", "peace begins at home" theme, and at their heart they are about practicing what we preach. They are about putting our lofty, abstract goals into concrete action. They are about making little, real differences on a day-to-day basis that have real impact on individuals' lives and consequently on the world more broadly. Be kind. Be compassionate. Be patient. Be generous. Be peaceful. Listen to and respect others.

2) Put your resources where your prayer is. War and violence are often rooted in ideology. But they are also often rooted in want and inequality. I contribute monthly to Care Canada, and for the International Day of Prayer for Peace I am donating to Project Ploughshares, an initiative of the Canadian Council of Churches, that works against armed conflict and for peace. Given that I don't believe in a deity, I'm at a loss to ask a deity to work toward peace. But I can certainly support - philosophically and financially - a real live organization that works toward peace.

3) Pray in another way. The word "pray" comes from the Latin precari, and it can also meant "entreat", "beg", "request", "plead", "ask earnestly". I understand that kind of prayer for peace. I entreat the reader to work for peace, in whatever way you can. I ask you, earnestly, to give some of your time or money toward making the world a more peaceful place. I beg you, when confronted with a choice between peaceful conduct and the escalation of conflict, to choose peace, and to let that little act of peace resonate and ripple outward into the world.