Thursday, April 26, 2007

Human Rights vs. Hegemony

I spent a lot of time last week banging my head against the wall, trying to figure out for myself how to have a reasoned, respectful conversation with people who wish breastfeeding mothers and children would disappear from public. "How do I talk to people who come from such a different perspective?" I asked myself and other veteran breastfeeding advocates. I don't think that all the people who complain about breastfeeding in public are horrible, insensitive least, I don't want to think they are. There must be a way to talk about this issue that strikes a chord with them. Despite all the head-banging, I remained at a loss. Then this email from UK mum Morgan Gallagher arrived in my inbox. She was responding to emails from other breastfeeding advocates and professionals that were supportive of the outcome of the situation at the Ronald McDonald House in Houston. Here is the most articulate argument I've read in sometime for why I do all I do to support breastfeeding. It so clarified my thinking and I urge you to read it, too. Morgan gave me permission to post and hopes that people will find what she wrote useful.
I’m finding it increasingly difficult to read, and respond to, the posts which suggest it was Jessica and Tobin’s responsibility in RHM to prepare the way for her nursing. That is not unreasonable for Jessica to be asked to ‘announce’ her intention to nurse for, after all, we all need to find a way to rub along together.

I’m finding it hard to read these posts, as they seem to be suggesting that all parties involved have equal rights in the matter. Tobin’s need to be nurtured is of equal status as the rights of the ‘offended’ party in having to watch such an uncomfortable act.

This is complete nonsense. There is only one right here: Tobin’s right to nurse. That’s why there is a law stating so, no matter how ineffective it turns out to be.

Tobin has an inalienable human right here that is being denied. The right of a human child to human milk, to nurture and nourish when its psychobiology requires it.

The offended onlooker does not have any rights to be protected. The offended onlooker has a personal issue, a feeling of discomfort and unease, that requires handling. A cultural dissonance, that needs acknowledged, responded to, engaged with and hopefully smoothed away. The nursing dyad has no such personal issue in this paradigm. The nursing dyad is not operating out of a cultural context. The nursing dyad has supreme importance and protection in this scenario.

There is a simple truth here, that is so awesome and complete in its simplicity, that it’s in danger of being overlooked: breastfeeding an infant is not a lifestyle choice. It is not a cultural convention. It is not a personal statement. It is a biological imperative. It is our essential nature. It is an essential element of our species, and the continuation of it. It is a biological norm.

We do not choose to breastfeed. We can choose not to. Likewise, we do not choose to breastfeed in public. We can choose not to. Breastfeeding is not a cultural construct. Not breastfeeding, is. Nursing an infant when the infant needs it, is a biological norm. Deciding that this needs to be done in a certain place, at a certain time, or in a certain way, is a cultural value.

The problem with many of the comments in here over the past couple of days, comments about tolerance, offence, understanding that other parents are going to be askance at nursing twins is that these arguments place nursing within a cultural paradigm. It positions the debate in one of opinion, feelings and cultural mores. In doing this, it assigns equal right to all participants, not to have their feelings etc ‘offended’ and that they all have equal standing in the debate: no one position is more valued or ‘protected’ than the other. Different cultures often do things so differently from each other, that problems and tensions arise when people of the differing cultures meet are best met with discussion, sharing views etc. All laudable comments on such problems as they arrive in a multi-cultural society.

However, breastfeeding is not a cultural activity. Therefore it does not belong in the cultural difference paradigm. As a biological normative behaviour, it exists in a complete different paradigm: that of human rights.

Quite often, when this sort of thing is discussed, someone will say, Would you ask a black person to go eat in their room if someone else was offended? and a huge debate will fall open about whether or not that was an appropriate thing to say. One side will scream its not appropriate to reference colour, the other will say, Why not? and off the merry go round will go.

Well, I’m going to raise it here as an example of what I mean by the basic difference between arguing about a cultural convention and a biological norm.

Being black is a biological norm. In fact, it’s the biological norm. Being white is actually the absence of being black. To discriminate against someone on the basis of colour, is to discriminate on their essential biology. It is to discriminate against their right to exist: it impinges on their human rights. There is no logic, rhyme or reason to such discrimination. It is a cultural construct imposing lunacy on the essential nature of humans. No one decides to be black. It is not a cultural concept. It is not a lifestyle choice. It is an essential artefact of human biology. It is.

As is breastfeeding.

Remembering that we do not choose to breastfeed we can only choose not to. All babies are born to breastfeed. It is not a cultural concept. It is not a cultural artefact. They are not making a lifestyle choice. They are following their biological, and psychobiological, imperatives. They are doing what humans do they are suckling for nurture, for nourishment and for survival. It is.

That is why they need the protection of the human rights paradigm, not the cultural one.

When laws are passed to protect the nursing dyad, these laws are not about protecting cultural difference. It is not about soothing cultural dissonance. It is not about protecting feelings, emotions or opinion. It is about protecting the essential normative biology of a nursing dyad. It is to prevent cultural suppression of an innate human characteristic. Just as being black, is an innate human characteristic.

I reiterate: breastfeeding is not a lifestyle choice. It is not something you choose to do. It is something you can only choose not to do. If you accept that an infant has an inalienable human right to human milk, and to comfort and soothe on the mother’s breast, you must also hold up its right to do so when it needs to regardless of how offended the ‘onlooker’ in. By all means soothe the onlooker but don’t make it the responsibility of the mother to do the soothing.

Keeping nursing in public debates with the cultural paradigm is completely and utterly redundant in our current society. It was once the only place the debate could take place, and we must thank, and support, the previous generations in their struggle in that paradigm. Many nursing mothers here and now, are only here because of the work of previous generations, who in the Great Drought sought to change personal opinion when they could.
Slowly, gently, and in a ‘let’s all get along nicely’ way. Wonderful women fighting a small, slow battle, inch by inch. Thank you.

However, we are not there anymore. Keeping the debate in the cultural paradigm is not only no longer useful it is detrimental to progress. Keep it in the cultural battlefield and you do several things, all of them

For starters, you place all the pressure on the individual mother, and her infant. Jessica Swimely has carried that entire pressure of this battle on her head over the past few days as the law that is there to prevent her
from having to do so, has failed her. By keeping the cultural paradigm in mind, you make it about the mother making the inroads into culture. You makes statements as a society that breastfeeding is to be protected but you leave the individual mother to take the flack. She must make the choices daily, on where and when her child’s psychobiological needs are suppressed by the hegemony. She carries the burden.

As does the infant.

In addition, you get all the cultural ‘debates’ that take up the time and energy and prevent progress. The female human breast is ‘sexual’ and it’s understandable that others will be offended. Ehm no. The female human breast is not sexual. It does not carry a biologically determined normative function of ‘sexual attraction’. (Enlarged breasts actually mimic the true sexual attraction the human bottom. Large breasts are not biologically
standard.) Culture dictates whether or not it is a sexualised organ. Keep the debate in cultural mores keep having endless arguments about seeing sexual body parts. Some USA State laws have even identified this as part of the protective law and stated legally that a nursing breast is not a sexual object. When you accept, and promote, the concept that nursing in public is a cultural debate, you actually end up undermining what you’re trying to protect by constantly allowing the ever rolling debate on such trivial points as to how much of a breast can be seen before offence is caused. Unless it’s a non-nursing breast, in which case you’re allowed rather a lot of it on billboards.

You also create space for the debate to include when and why weaning should occur and further undermine normal nursing practices from establishing. Lest we forget, this is about nursing toddlers. Every single time one of the posters in here has made a comment about how it is understandable that people have reacted badly to nursing twin toddlers, a dagger has been struck in the heart of many of us. Two extremely pernicious concepts have bobbed to the surface here one is the ‘indiscrete’ women, making it harder for laws to be passed, as she ‘whips it out’ and alienates people. Concurrent with this is the notion that those of us nursing toddlers in public are making it harder for acceptance, as we are acting so far out of the cultural norm. Shame! Shame on you! How can you possibly justify discussing a woman’s body, and her biological imperative to nurture her infant in such negative and unjust terms? How can you stand up and say you support breastfeeding, but you can see that those nursing toddlers are better advised to hide more than the others? How can you undermine the very women fighting longest and hardest to establish normative nursing patterns. How can you justify suggesting that women nursing in public hinders breastfeeding awareness?

Yet you do all of these things, when you argue about breastfeeding as a cultural issue. Because the very nature of cultural debate is to state that all sides have some points to make, and must be accommodated.

Breastfeeding is not a cultural artefact. Breastfeeding is a biological norm. The ability of the infant to access their mother’s milk when and where it chooses, is a human rights issue. The right of the human infant to nourish and comfort itself at the mother’s breast when it requires to, is an inalienable human right. A woman having control of her own body, in order to nourish her infant regardless of cultural suppression, is her inalienable human right.

These are human rights, not cultural debates. We can act in order to get along nicely where possible, but the right of the human child to breastfeeding is paramount.

And lest we forget, the cost of the lack of nursing, is death for many human babies. In the USA, 2 babies per thousand die for being on formula. Many many more get ill. In the wider world, 3500 babies a day die for lack of breastfeeding. In the time it’s taken me to write this over 7000 babies have died. And in the global village we live in, the lack of nursing in the West, feeds into that statistic. Women in the West feeding their infants in closed rooms, are not seen by their own communities, by the expectant mothers around them but they are also not seen by the mothers of the Third World, desperate to give their babies ‘the best’. These women only see white, affluent and incredibly healthy babies and mothers on the sides of cans of expensive formula. By keeping our nursing mothers bundled in the corner, or locked in bedrooms with their toddlers, or asking the common room to clear before feeding them we contribute to the problem. But that’s okay, because the father over there, feeding his sick baby formula, is appeased.

Women chose not to nurse because they live in a culture that disapproves of it. We cannot change this, by working within the culture to ‘smooth it all out’. We cannot dump the responsibility on the individual nursing mother to prevent offence. We must act to protect her rights to nurse, and her child’s right to nurse. Their human rights. Full stop. Period. End of.

Working in terms of the sensibilites of the onlooker to nursing, was once useful. Yesterday. Or even the day before yesterday. We can acknowledge how useful it was, and how much was acheived, as we move on to tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Awesome, awesome post ladies!

mother in israel said...

Fantastic post--she said it all.

Ahmie said...

My favorite thing to say to people who object to seeing a nursing dyad on the grounds of the (cultural) sexualization of the breast (I *think* this is original to me, but then again I don't generally believe we're capable of original thoughts much anymore as a species):

Human hands are much more sexual organs than the female breast is. It's completely possible for a woman who has had a total mastectomy to continue having pleasurable sexual intercourse. Lack of hands makes the process much more difficult than lack of breasts. Ergo, we should all wear gloves whenever we're in public. Better yet, mittens, so as to disguise the fact that we *gasp* have fingers.

Then hand the gaping idiot a pair of mittens and get back to what you were doing.

I snark, therefore I am.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Great email, and soooo true! I am now putting myself back together after being "blown away!"


Anonymous said...

I am a mother to a nursing 19 month old toddler. I live in a small community where nursing is definitely not the norm. I have never seen or heard of another women in my community breastfeeding. I actually cried when I read this. I DO feel that the burden is all on my shoulders. I wonder how brave I'm going to be when my son asks to nurse in public. It upsets me so much that I have no support in what should be a beautiful and natural thing. Thank you for fueling my courage a little bit - to continue being the best mother I can be to my nursing toddler and the best example of a women to my 4 year old daughter. Maybe the world will be kinder to breastfeeding women when she has her children. Maybe I can help make that happen so she won't have to hide in a bedroom to nurse.

Anonymous said...

Wow! You implied that you wrote that in 2 days. That amazes me. I could spend a year and not write as eloquently as you did. You have stated beautifully and without rancor what many of us would like to say. Thank you.

Rambling Rachel said...

Logical and makes so sense.