Reviewed by E. B. Heath
Those societies, which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows. Alfred North Whitehead.
Every human society has a cultural framework that advocates a value system along with a code of behaviour, the logic of which is cemented into the collective mind via common narratives. Whereas the injustice of another group’s mores can be easily identified, it takes concerted effort to unpack one’s own cultural thinking. Culture is so weaved into our thought processes that it assumes the status of being the only natural way to organize the world, an issue of common sense rather than values.
Malik’s latest book, We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent, sets out to analyze the rationale behind cultural thinking, which she refers to as myths. ‘Myth’ is defined as a widely held but false belief without a determinable basis of fact. Such beliefs are transported through time by legendary stories to justify some practice, rite or phenomenon of nature. The intent of Malik’s book is to expose these myths, which she says have culminated into the current toxic socio-political environment evident in the USA, the great Trump divide, and the polarizing effect of Brexit in the UK. Malik concentrates on America and England, with the occasional comparison with the Middle East.
Malik was born in Sudan, grew up in Kenya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia; she received her undergraduate education at the American University in Cairo and University of Khartoum, and her postgraduate education at the University of London. Having experienced several cultures, and, as a woman, been disadvantaged by all of them in one way or another, she is ideally positioned to hold up a diagnostic ‘mirror’ to reflect irrational cultural ‘logic’.
In separate chapters, Malik analyzes the myths that argue against gender equality; the detrimental effects of trashing the culture of political correctness; the polarization of free speech absolutism; the grievances of identity politics; with a brief chapter on ‘New Tools for New Stories’. Malik’s prose is elegant, sometime witty, and always coherent. Arguments slip well-formed from the page, as she battles tired themes that, among other things, hark back to ‘empire’ and biological determinism. Having the parameters of each argument clearly set out allows readers to spring board to their own conclusions, whether in agreement or otherwise.
It does not take many pages to understand, and agree, with Malik that the status quo is functioning to support hierarchies of inequality, whereby a few are privileged and many marginalized. The lines of reasoning used to support well established positions are worn-out. They have been debunked many times, and yet pop up in the voice of another middle-class, white, male pundit yearning for the good old days.
A sample of one myth analyzed by Malik, which seems to be a perennial favourite across cultures when debating gender issues, is biological determinism. Apparently, sexual harassment, forced marriage, or unequal pay equivalence and even domestic violence is just a function of biology. More sophisticated arguments propounding the same theme make attempts to use scientific methods regarding metabolic states or gendering the brain. All of which have been disproved by more rigorous, less biased, scientific studies, also detailed by Malik. But as Malik insightfully points out if relying on a boys-will-be-boys biology to defend over-bearing or sexual misconduct, surely perpetrators should not be viewed as thinking individuals with agency rather: ‘… as organisms on top of a food chain reacting with instinctive self-preservation…’ (p.23). And, one might think not best qualified to steer public policy.
Malik refers to Virginia Valian’s book Why so Slow whose research found that many men can embrace the need for fairness but they have difficulty with their own loss of centrality: ‘To these men, the end of the patriarchy is actually the end of the world.’ Malik refers to sociologist William J. Goode who ascribes male resistance as the natural self-preservation instinct of any dominant group. And that just about sums up all the positions of those who oppose policies promoting equality across the board. It is not until the last chapter that she points out how the patriarchal system is also disadvantaging men. A vital point, best not left to last, that men are forced to measure themselves to a standard that prizes power, control and invincibility; and this is stressful, and clearly toxic.
Most concerning is the chapter headed ‘The Myth of the Reliable Narrator’; here Malik takes the media to task. She criticizes the press in Britain as a mainly white, male and Oxbridge educated: ‘… only equipped to do one thing, uphold the status quo.’ From the surprise election of Trump to the success of the Brexit campaign, it is clear that the media had seriously misread all the signs. To quote Malik: What was really going on … was that no one knew what was going on. Or as Malik says the media were packaging ideas and repackaging them to the extent that they became completely disembodied from the ground …. This is a worrying state of affairs. Critical inquiry by the media is a vital part of the democratic system.
Whereas the far-right brigade is open in declaring its goals as unapologetically empire-centric in Britain, and in the USA striving to be great again, I think Malik might declare her position. Obviously she speaks from the Left of politics but she does not consider if equality is being unevenly championed. Does promoting racial and ethnic equality so vigorously disadvantage issues within gender and class equality? Eighteen years ago, the lived experience of some working-class girls in Rotherham, North Yorkshire (2002) was a case in point. Pedophiles are not confined to any racial group and generally are pursued with vigor, however, worried about accusations of racism, police and politicians appeared to be stymied in the pursuit of a non-Caucasian pedophile ring. Denis MacShane, MP 1994-2012 admitted to the BBC’s ‘World At One’ that ‘there was a culture of not wanting to rock the multicultural community boat’. Is it a valid point then that the Left privileges issues of racial equality above that of class and gender? In respecting cultures with differing values concerning both class and gender are we in danger of further disadvantaging women from working class backgrounds?
Malik gives readers some guidelines for re-thinking and challenging the way we think, in ‘New Tools for New Stories’. An Albert Einstein quote comes to mind: The world we have created is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking. Malik counsels readers to ask themselves: ‘Are you trying to make a point or are you trying to get somewhere?’ To adopt rigorous fact checking, tracing the purpose of the stories, and, as above, foster a non-partisan worldview. I think Malik might have expanded this chapter, or hopefully, another book is in the pipeline.
We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent is an insightful commentary and explanation of how we got into such a state of discontent.
By Nesrine Malik
Paperback 9781474610414 – $32.99
Hardback 9781474610407 – $45.00
Audiobook 9781409183495 – $35.99
e-Book 9781474610438 – $14.99