Monday, 9 March 2015

Visions of Prejudice: Synagoga

Politics is not the only stage upon which instances of prejudice are enacted; culture has been host to prejudices and biases throughout human history. We can easily recall examples of discriminatory and propagandist imagery in modern and contemporary history, however this phenomenon stretches back centuries.

A prevalent example of anti-Semitic iconography used throughout the Middle Ages is the figure of Synagoga. A notable appearance of the figure is upon the fa├žade of the south transept of  Strasbourg Cathedral, built from 1015-1439. 

Ecckesia and Synagoga

Synagoga is the feminine personification of Judaism; she stands opposite to Ecclesia who in contrast, represents the collective body of Christianity. The two female figures flank a statue of Solomon. The juxtaposition of the two female figures symbolizes the transition from the Old Law (Judaism) to the birth of the New (Christianity) announced by the incarnation of Christ.

The significance of Synagoga is from the very start dependent on her correlation and contrast with Ecclesia. From a Christian theological perspective, the confrontation of the two women marks the displacement of the Jews from their place as God’s chosen people and their replacement by Christians: the triumphant birth of Christianity through the overcoming of its predecessor, an idea stretching back several centuries. 

Synagoga is shown , unlike the triumphant figure of Ecclesia, as a figure of abandonment and submission. She is blindfolded, averts her head from the direction of Ecclesia and the cathedral’s portal, her spear is broken and surmounted by a banner, while she feebly holds the tablets of the Old Testament, implying, the obsolescence of Judaism in Medieval Christian society. Her drapery is  transparent and fluid compared to the glorious massiveness of Ecclesia’s straight lines. Her weakness, encoded in her posture, would have been probably recognized even by illiterate visitors of the cathedral. 

She is wearing a veil which perhaps symbolises the idea of “Jewish blindness” - the perceived failure of the Judaism to 'recognise' Christ as the son of God. 

Isaac Brunn’s engraving of 1617 reports that originally a crown was laid at her feet, while a scene probably alluding to the biblical murder of Abel by his brother Cain was inscribed on the corbel above her. These are all especially negative iconographic associations, which do not only attest to her defeat by Ecclesia, but also enact certain characteristic stereotypes attributed to Jews during the period. Synagoga’s contemporary  costume transports the biblical story of the first fratricide; an immemorial crime;  into the context the 13th century. This narrative technique implies that medieval Jews are collectively culpable and accountable for every crime historically attributed to them.

The idea of collective responsibility does not only highlight the prejudicial understanding of the Jewish members of Christian societies in an uninterrupted continuity with their ancestors, and thus still guilty for their trespasses, but is also a reminder that in contemporary society, individuals are still targeted and expected to feel guilty and responsible for the actions of their ancestors or other members of their religious  or ethnic communities. 

---Hailey Maxwell

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Understanding Privilege and Power

The Complexities of Privilege

Inequality is characterised by the uneven distribution of rights across the population.

These rights amount to what kinds of social power a person can have. A person's social power is determined by the amount of respect they are offered by society and how easy it is for them access certain rights. These rights vary greatly, whether it’s about having greater accessibility to education, healthcare, economic stability or easier access to jobs, legal protection or safe and acceptable housing.

Inequality becomes visible when we realise that equal access to things we consider basic human needs and rights is not awarded to everyone equally. On the global stage, it is clear that the standard of living and the basic human rights awarded to people living in the developed world is much higher than those living in less developed countries. Today, in 2015, people across the world still face famine, genocide, starvation and disease on a large scale; while in the developed world these challenges are not something most of the population have to ever face. This is just one obvious example of an unequal distribution of physical well being, but the same can be said for further basic human rights such as physical safety, freedom from persecution and physical harm or freedom to practice religion. The list goes on, and it’s a list we’re all familiar with in comparatively economically and socially privileged west.

However even in the West, while we like to think that we live in an equal, meritocratic society, George Orwell highlighted a sentiment expressed in Animal Farm that still feels relevant; "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." Some members of our society, due to circumstances and accidents of birth, find it much easier than others to access the attributes that allow a person to improve their quality of life - and as a result those people are naturally in in a more powerful position based on a variety of attributes and circumstances, whether they are aware or it or not. We consider certain people who are more powerful agents in society to have more privilege.

According to Michel Foucault, “power is everywhere and comes from everywhere”  This expressed the notion of privilege as being in constant flux and negotiation. Foucault uses the term ‘power/knowledge’ to signify that power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge, scientific understanding and ‘truth.’ This means that it is a society's cultural norms and values which determine how privileged a person is within that society. A person who is very privileged in one social and geographical setting may find themselves in a less privileged position somewhere else; privilege is not an unmoving, permanent fixture – which sheds a positive light on the notion of privilege, as it means inequality can always be challenged, combated and reduced.

We often mistakenly understand power as being made up of a binary opposition; “us against them” in a kind of master/slave scenario where one group of homogeneous people are against another minority group. Racism is characterised as the domination of one race over others, sexism is the domination of one gender over another.

However, people are complex; society is even more so. It’s reductive to put people into convenient little boxes and imagine allocated power to be based on this dialectical, “master/slave” kind of basis. All women are not the same. All people of a particular racial group are not the same. We can't imagine social power as being all or nothing; everyone has some social power.

Gender, race, religious views, ability and sexual orientation are all obvious ways in which people are discriminated against within society; it is not entirely unfair to say that being a Caucasian, able bodied, heterosexual man awards a person a large amount of privilege in Western society. However, we need to recognise that more nuanced attributes determine a person’s position on the axis of power; education, class, age, income and location all play a part in allowing a citizen social power.

For example; despite the prevalence of sexism in Western society, a University educated, upper middle class white woman arguably enjoys more social power in the West than a working class, black male who has never been educated past high school.

There are a variety of combinations of types of privilege which give us our place on the axis of social power and it is important that we recognise these within ourselves and within our society's value system in order to better understand our own impact on the world around us, and empathise with others. The arbitrary system of value which decides what gives a person privilege (e.g being heterosexual rather than homosexual and/or able bodied rather than disabled) should and can always be challenged; as it benefits the few and not the many.

- Hailey Maxwell