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A Prose Fiction: The ‘Coming of Age’ and the Problems of Youth

Kagusthan Ariaratnam

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The influence of family, school, church, and peers mold us into who we are for a life time. This essay will discuss the coming of age (problems of youth) as depicted in Willa Cather’s (1905) Paul’s Case and J.K. Rowling’s (1998) Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. Paul’s and Harry Potter’s transition from childhood into adolescence will be examined. The influence that social forces have on the coming of age, including family, school, church, and peers, will become evident as Paul and Potter transition into very different adolescents.

Set in the early years of the 20th Century in Pittsburgh, Willa Cather portrays Paul as an introvert, homosexual school boy. As such, Cather illustrates the social forces that fail to support and protect Paul’s vulnerability, including his single-parent household, his educational system, his church, and his peers. These pillars of society express no empathy or sympathy for Paul’s unrest. Paul’s loss of his mother, a primary caregiver, leads to his absence of attachment to his motherly figure. Paul’s school teachers and principal refuse to accommodate his differences, and instead, suspend him for his misdemeanors. Paul’s religious institution refuses to accept homosexuals.  Paul’s religious institution also fails to approach and support Paul as a vulnerable individual. Paul’s acquaintances, who are narrow minded, cannot accept Paul for who he is and ultimately mistreat him. Because of this unacceptance by society, Paul did not experience a sense of belonging; rather, he felt excluded. Paul is thus confused about his identity which contributes to his eventual suicide.

In contrast, Harry Potter leads a much better and flourishing life. J.K. Rowling draws on the successful story of a wizard as influenced by positive role models, his skills in witchcraft and wizardry from Hogwarts, and his peers. Harry Potter loses both of his parents and spends his childhood in his aunt’s household. Like Paul, Potter went through similar childhood experiences, as he did not have a primary caregiver whom he could attach to. However, Potter had the opportunity to go to Hogwarts wherein he had great role models and peers, including Headmaster Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall and Hagrid. Thus, school was a positive experience for Potter, and it symbolizes hope compared to Paul. Potter was born a gifted wizard and spent his life believing in magic. Unlike Paul, Potter had a sense of belonging within the wizardry world. Potter also had supporting peers whereas Paul did not have peers to look up to. Although Potter did not have a family to care for him, his social forces had a positive influence on his life.

According to psychologist Erik Erikson, a lifespan model of development from infancy to adulthood consists of eight stages. Erikson suggests that the first five stages, between birth and twelve years of age, are critical for a child’s attachment, trust, autonomy, and initiative to properly develop towards his/her caregiver (Erikson, 1986).Erikson puts a great deal of emphasis on the adolescent period, between twelve and eighteen years of age, concluding that it is a crucial stage for developing personality, identity, and role confusion in society (Erikson, 1986). Erikson’s theory applies to Paul’s early childhood since he lost his mother when he was a few months old and thus lost a primary caregiver. Consequently, in not experiencing the love or care from a motherly figure, he becomes detached from the world around him. To make matters worse, Cather portrays an unhealthy relationship between Paul and his father wherein Paul was never close to his father nor showed any respect for him. Due to a lack of communication between the two, Paul’s father had very little understanding of or sympathy for Paul’s anxiety. Cather also implies this lack of understanding as the result of a generational gap between the two. Overall, Paul did not develop a sense of belonging, thus becoming confused of his role in society. He did not develop a positive sense of identity because his school did not support him, his father scolded him, his friends teased him, and the church did not condone his different beliefs.

Potter also grew up without primary caregivers and thus did not have the motherly or fatherly figures necessary for attachment. Potter’s aunt and uncle did not care for him like a son, and so, Potter does not properly develop attachment or trust. That being said, Potter grows into adolescence differently due to his role models and peers. At Hogwarts, Potter meets his life-long mentors including Headmaster Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall and Hagrid whom he looks up to as role models providing him with positive guidance and care. In essence, for Potter, Hogwarts is much more than a school as it symbolizes a sense of belonging in his quest to fit in. Therefore, it is clearly evident how important the school and education system is for Potter’s transition into adolescence.

Paul’s sisters’ dull and boring personalities further alienated him from his immediate family. A family is a social and/or biological system made up of a set of people related by blood or intention (Bloch, 1984). In other words, a family is a whole made up of interacting parts. You cannot add these parts together and get a total system – the system is more than the sum of its parts (Bloch, 1984). Therefore, when one member of a family is missing, as is Paul’s mother, the system becomes dysfunctional. If Paul had caregivers that loved him as a child, he would have become a different person. Potter experiences tragedy with the death of both his parents; therefore, his family system becomes dysfunctional in a similar way that Paul’s had. Potter’s uncle Dursley, who is a father figure, also mistreated him and continuously scolded him. As such, Potter’s childhood home was not characteristic of positive interaction thereby affecting the family system as a whole.

The ancient Roman poet Virgil reminds us, “As the twig is bent the tree inclines” (Evans, 1947, p.321).This quote is about children and how they are raised. The significance of this quote is that if children are raised correctly, they will do well in their society as they grow into adolescence. If they are allowed to misbehave from the beginning, it will become much harder to correct their behavior later in life. Paul’s life fits right into this notion because as a boy Paul internalized his obsessions for Opera music and art, and as a result, Paul longed for a luxurious life. Paul did not have any interest in his school; moreover, the education system failed to accommodate Paul’s artistic and vulnerable personality, responding with punishment. Paul also did not like his middle-class life and went to symphony halls and art galleries on a regular basis to escape the reality of his “mundane” life (Cather, 1905). Paul’s early misbehavior at school leads to a series of misbehavior later in life which could not be corrected. On the other hand, Potter’s opportunity to attend Hogwarts and his innate and masterful wizardry skills nurtured him into a completely different adolescent. He was guided and instructed by his school and mentors, and although he was scolded by his uncle, he was always obedient. Therefore, Potter did not misbehave and grew into a model citizen.

As Cather (1905) portrays, the red carnation that Paul wears is a symbol of homosexuality. The church that Paul attends, however, does not condone homosexuality. Paul is not able to tell his father or friends of his homosexuality, instead he buries it inside. Paul secretly spends his time with Charley Edwards, who is also gay as indicated through his attire and acting career (Cather, 1905).On the other hand, for Potter, Hogwarts replaces and symbolizes the church. Potter cannot live without Hogwarts because that is where he feels a sense of belonging. Although Dobby warns Potter that his life is in danger at Hogwarts, Potter still returns to his place of hope.

Conclusion

Paul took his own life because he did not want to return to his mundane and boring lifestyle. Paul did not want to face his father whom he did not feel attached to. Paul’s inner circle of family, church and school have a discontentment toward his sensitive, artistic, and vulnerable personality, and as such, they would alienate him more if he had returned. Lastly, Paul failed to accomplish the American dream. Alternatively, in defeating the evil at Hogwarts, Potter became a hero. Potter was very brave in this venture, and more importantly, it was his choice to do so. With nurturing role models, Potter had morals and a sense of belonging wherein he internalized these positive influences which ultimately molded him into a successful wizard. Overall, the coming of age is crucial for one’s development into successful adolescence.

References

  • Bloch, Donald A. “The family as a psychosocial system.” Family Systems Medicine 2.4 (1984): 387-396. Web. 28 Mar. 2016. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0091676
  • Cather, Willa. “Paul’s Case – A study in Temperament.” Fiction 100- An Anthology of Short Fiction. Ed. James H. Pickering. Boston: Pearson Education Inc, 2012. 195-209. Print.
  • Erikson, E. H. Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton. (1986). Print.
  • Evans, William Arthur. Basic principles of child “conditioning”: “as the twig is bent the tree’s inclined”. Dallas, Texas. Institute of Human Technology, Inc. (1947). Print
  • Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury. (1998). Print.

Kagusthan Ariaratnam is multi-skilled security, defense, intelligence, and counterterrorism analyst with over 25 years of experience. He currently works as a research analyst at Project O Five. Kagusthan can be reached by email at Kagusthan[at]gmail.com

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New Social Compact

Joker &the Pathology of Violence

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image: Warner Bros

JOKER, director Todd Phillips and renowned actor Joaquin Phoenix’s new take on an infamous comic book villain, will hit the big screen this weekend.  It has garnered prestigious awards (such as the Golden Lion), laudatory critic reviews & is expected to attract hordes of eager moviegoers.  However, JOKER has also inspired ominous think-pieces from publications such as The Atlantic and Vox.  Additionally, the US military and the NYPD have expressed concern that the film could inspire violence.

These detractors of JOKER are arguing that the film glorifies “incel violence” and is thus likely to inspire acts as incel violence.  This logic has been used ad nauseam to condemn everything from comic books, to video games, to martial arts, to Marilyn Manson to hip-hop.  No credible study has proven that art that portrays violence causes real-world violence.  Some people may point out that extreme outliers, like white-supremacist music, could cause violence.  However, it would be more logical to argue the opposite: people who compose and listen to white-supremacist music were already enmeshed in a violent ideology.  Likewise, genocidal propaganda tends not to focus on explicitly glorifying violence for violence’s sake, but in portraying groups of people as sub-human (Tutsis being compared to roaches, Jews being portrayed as greedy and treasonous, etc.).  It’s thus a process of long, gradated inculcation.  As Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels realized, there’s no reverse-Ludovico Technique that can magically turn people into killing machines by quickly showing them a two-hour film.

Now, it is true that a few violent criminals have cited works of art as inspiration for their actions.  This is statistically inevitable, but insignificant.  There are bound to be a few outliers who have bizarre interpretations on art, just as there are a few people who have been inspired to commit acts of terrorism based on personal interpretations of religion or politics.  It’s no more logical to suggest that we ban violent video games or art because of mass shootings than to suggest we ban Buddhism because of Aum Shinrikyo’s gas attack on the Tokyo subway, or that we should ban Irish patriotism because of the IRA.  Furthermore, some violent lunatics have been inspired by works of art, such as John Lennon’s killer citing Catcher in the Rye, that aren’t even violent in nature.  Clearly, the people who commit mass killings are incredibly unhinged individuals who are in a violent frame of mind, regardless of what media they consume.  Likewise, 99.99% of people who play FPS games or who watch slasher flicks aren’t going to go on a shooting rampage or create a torture dungeon in their basement.

To return things to JOKER itself, the film in no way “glorifies” violence.  For starters, half of the violence is inflicted on the main character (the “incel hero”); there are two scenes where The Joker gets jumped mercilessly and a third scene where he gets sucker-punched in the face.  The violent acts that The Joker himself commits are portrayed in a very gruesome manner (in one scene with The Joker and a neighbor of his, the violence isn’t even shown, but is merely implied).  When The Joker bashes someone’s head in or shoots someone point-blank, there are no crass jokes, inspirational music or voiceovers quoting The Art of War. The plotline doesn’t imply any justification for the killings.  When someone gets killed in the film, audience-goers don’t hoot and holler like they would in a screening of a zombie film or a Nazi-revenge flick like Inglorious Basterds.  Rather, there is an awkward pall of silence in the theater at the nihilistic spectacle.

JOKER makes it very clear that the title character’s violence is motivated by nothing but his utter insanity.  The Joker descends into a killing machine after being released from an asylum and after he stops taking seven different psych meds (which weren’t helping him much, anyway).  When being interviewed, he admits that he isn’t compelled by any ideology whatsoever.  Rather, The Joker literally views the act of killing as a joke. 

Nor does The Joker gain any tangible reward for his violence; he gets fired from his job, arrested, hit by an ambulance and committed to an asylum as a direct result of his actions. Joaquin Phoenix’s character gets a thrill from the media coverage that his killings elicit (and a standing ovation from fellow thugs in the film’s penultimate scene), but that not’s a real reward, but rather a feeling that many real-life killers in fact get when they are portrayed in the news.  For instance, the as-yet unidentified Zodiac Killer literally played games with Bay Area news outlets, sending them letters that boasted about his kills, contained cryptic puzzles and threatened to blow up a school bus if he didn’t receive even more media attention.  Many other serial killers who were apprehended were found to have hoarded newspaper clippings that documented their crimes.  Similarly, coverage of a mass shooting often inspires “copycat mass shootings”.  The takeaway from this is that the media should be careful about inadvertently turning stories about mass shootings and terror attacks into personal biographies of the killer.  When covering these kinds of attacks, some news outlets, like The Young Turks and The David Pakman Show, deliberately choose to blur the killers’ faces and avoid naming them, so as not to give the killers the attention that they wanted to garner and to avoid inspiring other violently-deranged individuals who crave attention.

The fact that JOKER doesn’t merely portray the villain as an Evil-Incarnate caricature doesn’t mean that it is therefore glorifying violence.  The audience is meant to sympathize with The Joker when he get jumped without warning or when he talks about the crippling depression that he has felt for literally his entire life.  There are scenes showing The Joker comforting his mother and entertaining sick children.  The mere fact that The Joker is portrayed as a full human being, good traits and bad traits, doesn’t mean the film is justifying how he releases his violent rage.  No human is evil 100% of the time: there is no villain who tortures hamsters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It is only by studying the causes of violent criminals’ various motivations that we can ever hope to ebb the tide of violence.  Most violent criminals have suffered from childhood abuse, childhood poverty, a missing parental figure, bullying and/or mental illness (The Joker had to deal with all five of these traumas).  By empathizing with these plights, we can create programs (drug treatment programs, stamping out bullying in school, removing children from abusive households, etc.) that can reduce violent crime.

It’s not comfortable to acknowledge that history’s most evil people had humanity or that societal norms (like persecuting people, tolerating child abuse or underfunding mental illness and addiction treatment programs) can fuel violence.  It’s evident that Todd Phillips, through his direction and screenplay, and Joaquin Phoenix, through his tortured portrayal of The Joker, meant to give us a glimpse into the mind of a demented killer, not so we can sympathize with the protagonist’s brutal violence, but so we can sympathize with the myriad factors that drove the protagonist to criminal insanity.  The nearly uniform media portrayals of mentally-ill individuals as Pure Evil only serves to misinform the public and to scare those suffering from mental disorders from seeking help.  Hopefully, the discussions being generated by JOKER will encourage people to learn more about complex diseases like schizophrenia and to be more proactive in reaching out to loved ones who are displaying signs of mental anguish.

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Women outnumber men in higher education but gender stereotyped subject choices persist

MD Staff

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Education is essential to achieving gender equality. From the earliest schooling to the highest levels of post-graduate study, education influences the opportunities that can shape people’s lives.

This is why education and training of women is one of the 12 critical areas of concern in the Beijing Platform for Action, while target 4.5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for the elimination of gender disparities in education by 2030.

In the UNECE region girls tend to outperform boys in terms of learning outcomes in schools, and women outnumber men in tertiary education (university level and beyond) in almost all countries of the region.

Women remain in the minority, however, as students of stereotypically “masculine” subjects such as ICT and engineering, although in recent years they have begun slowly gaining ground.

Tertiary level graduates

In 39 out of the 47 UNECE countries with data, more than 55 per cent of tertiary graduates are women. Iceland has the highest share, with 66 per cent women.  Seven countries are close to gender parity, with the share of women ranging from 48 to 55 per cent, and only in Uzbekistan are women in a clear minority, with 38 per cent of tertiary graduates.

After decades of increase in women’s participation in higher education, women substantially outnumbered men among tertiary level graduates in most countries by 2012. Since then, women’s share has declined in 32 out of the 47 countries with data. Whilst in Azerbaijan and Turkey fewer than half of tertiary graduates were women in 2012, more women have entered tertiary education in these countries since and the 2017 data already show gender parity there. 

Subject choices of women and men

The subjects studied at tertiary level by women and men can reflect stereotypes of “masculine” and “feminine” subject areas. Some subjects may be preferred by potential employers and may affect occupational segregation once graduates enter the labour market. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction (EMC) are two broad groups of subjects where male students have historically predominated.

Women remain a minority among ICT students in the UNECE region, with percentages ranging from 11 in Belgium to 33 in Greece. The four countries with the largest share of women among ICT students are all in the Balkan region. Among students of EMC, the share of women is somewhat higher, but still falls far short of parity, ranging from 14 per cent in Georgia to 44 per cent in North Macedonia.

In both of these subject groups, the recent trend shows small gains for women in some countries but reductions in others. Overall, progress towards gender equality in these two typically male-dominated subject areas is uneven and slow.

UNECE Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting

Progress in achieving gender equality in education will be one of the areas in focus at the upcoming Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting for the UNECE region, with a particular emphasis on how women and girls can enter currently male-dominated fields.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995 (Beijing Platform for Action) is the most ambitious road map for the empowerment of women and girls everywhere. In 2020, it will be 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action outlined how to overcome the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life. 

The Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting (29-30 October 2019) will take stock of where the UNECE region stands on keeping the promises of the Beijing Platform for Action. Bringing together government representatives and key stakeholders from the UNECE region, the meeting will tackle a number of obstacles that keep girls and women from realizing their full potential. UNECE is joining forces with the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia to deliver a two-day multi-stakeholder meeting to exchange concrete policies to accelerate the realization of gender equality. The outcomes of the meeting will feed into the global review of the Beijing Platform for Action taking place at the sixty-fourth session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York from 9 to 20 March 2020.

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New Social Compact

Call for Action from Leaders and Business on Violence against Women

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Spiralling levels of violence against women in Africa require immediate action from governments and businesses, including tangible measures to create safe spaces, experts from across the continent told the World Economic Forum on Africa today.

Protesters in South Africa have taken to the streets and social media to demand action, following the rape and murder of a Cape Town university student who was attacked in a post office. Uyinene Mrwetyana was just the latest of many victims of brutal assaults in a region where approximately 45% of women and girls over 14 years have experienced physical or sexual violence.

“I’m dumbfounded by the idea that we can continue with business as usual,” said Namhla Mniki-Mangaliso, Director of African Monitor, who urged technology companies to take a lead in delivering solutions. “It would take a click of a finger for a tech company to say we are going to deploy a software that can assist us with an emergency response system for poor women in South Africa free of charge.”

The potential for technology to help in the fightback highlights the need for businesses to think creatively, given that cyberbullying can also contribute to discrimination in the first place. Mniki-Mangaliso said the wider business community should also step up to the plate by backing a gender-based fund to address the deep-rooted problems behind the rising tide of physical and sexual assaults.

Hafsat Abiola-Costello, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Women in Africa Initiative, said Africa could learn from China, where decisive action was taken to ban harmful practices like foot binding and polygamy. African governments, by contrast, too often fail to enforce bans on polygamy or genital mutilation, thereby reinforcing a culture of discrimination against women that becomes embedded from childhood.

The failure to protect women is not just a moral issue; it also comes with a high economic cost. “Who drives African communities? It’s our women. Our women can drive Africa’s development, if given the chance, if protected, if their rights are respected,” Abiola-Costello said. “Africa missed the first industrial revolution, we missed the second, we missed the third. If we don’t address this issue, we will miss the fourth.”

Obiageli Katryn Ezekwesili, who spearheaded the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria and is a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy, said calls for women to help drive African development will simply ring hollow if violence is not addressed. “The world lacks the moral pedestal to stand on to ask girls to aspire if we cannot have the back of those who are vulnerable,” she said.

With 16,000 deaths due violence against in women every year in South Africa alone, Akudo Anyanwu, Associate Dean at Johns Hopkins University, said: “Our presidents and the leaders in government need to come out and take a position. We need to have our leaders come out and call crimes a crime.”

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