Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Human Rights versus Hegemony

This is an archive post, of writing of mine previously posted in other areas on the internet.

This post was in response to a mother with a terribly sick toddler, who was staying at a Ronald McDonald family hospice unit, being asked not to breastfeed her child in public areas in the hopsice. Despite it being illegal to prevent breastfeeding in Texas.
Human rights versus Hegemony
Those of us working hard to improve the world by support breastfeeding and breastfeeding mothers, can often be disheartened by the ongoing list of nursing mothers splashed across the media for being asked to remove themselves and their hungry infants from planes, parks, swimming pools and restaurants. Women such as Emily Gillette and Jessica Swimely find themselves in tense and humiliating experiences, whilst the rest of us find ourselves debating once more in the usual burst of comments, both pro and anti, on the curious concept of “nursing in public”. Such media hiccups are a two edged sword for all of us. On one hand, they do raise awareness of the problems nursing mothers face in a hostile culture, on the other hand, it makes more mothers fearful that they will be personally approached and censored when nursing their own infants. Equally, we have an opportunity to engage in meaningful discourse with others, as well as within our own ranks, but at the same time can find ourselves in a cycle of repeated view and counter view that is both worn and apparently inescapable.
The Swimely case in particular, has raised much of this depressing circular discussion, as the details of the ‘requests’ RMH made to the family, have facilitated a great deal of discussion within breastfeeding support communities and in general debate. The fact that it was an ongoing situation, with a family in immense need of long term support, has allowed us to see inside people’s thinking a great deal more than in a ‘one off’ situation such as a hungry infant removed from a plane or a restaurant. Sustained discourse has occurred, as each solution and counter solution was analyzed and comments passed on the various aspects of the struggle that Tobin was having in getting human milk, and human nurture, as he recovered from his brain operation. Many of the comments, from within our own community, have been about how difficult it is to balance everyone’s viewpoint in this debate. That the other adults and children in the common room required care and concern also. Many have stated that whilst Jessica and Tobin had a right to nurse in the common room, the agreement that Jessica and her family should alert others to it first, and give them time to leave the common room if they wished to, is both sensible and sensitive.
These comments reflect a view, often expressed in such discussions, that in a culture of different personal standards and tastes, acting to protect the other parties involved when contemplating nursing in public, is a sensitive and laudable act. That others need to be considered in the equation and it is a small thing to ask, for them to be warned in advance. Some have even pointed out that as Jessica was nursing twin toddlers, the reactive stance of ‘offended’ onlookers was more understandable. Every comment has usually started with “I agree that Jessica had a right to nurse but….” The ‘but’ goes on to explain that there all sorts of reason why people might be offended by an older infant being nursed, an infant being nursed in front of other children, and infant being nursed in front of a… the usual collections of reasons. The comment usually then ends with a plea for us to understand that progress can only be made if we try and ‘rub along together’ as opposed to end up in seeming combative situations such as calling in lawyers and the press.
This view, seemingly common sense and humane, suggests that all parties have equal rights in the matter and progress will be made if the rights of the ‘onlooker’ are also respected. In this case, that Tobin’s need to be nurtured is of equal status as the rights of the onlooker.

This is complete nonsense. There is only one right here: Tobin’s right to nurse. That’s why there was a law stating so, no matter how ineffective it turned 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 is 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 arguments that occur when this debate rises again and again, arguments about tolerance, offence, understanding that other parents are going to be askance at nursing toddlers… 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 arise 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 behavior, it exists in a complete different paradigm: that of human rights. 

Quite often, when this sort nursing argument is raging, 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, raising colour is an appropriate comparison to make, and I present it to you now, 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 is 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 artifact 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 artifact. 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 debates on nursing infants within 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 where and 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 invidious: 

For starters, we place all the pressure on the individual mother, and her infant. Jessica Swimely carried the entire pressure of this battle on her head as she sought to both feed and soothe a hungry and distressed infant and somehow appease cultural suppression at the same time. The law designed to protect her, failed. Some of us in the breastfeeding support community also failed her, but suggesting it was entirely reasonable that she clear the common room before nursing. By keeping the cultural paradigm in mind, we make it about the mother making the inroads into culture. We makes statements as a society that breastfeeding is to be protected … but we 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, we 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. Erm... 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 sexualized organ. Keep the debate in cultural mores – keep having endless arguments about seeing sexual body parts. Some laws have even identified this as part of the protective law and stated legally that a nursing breast is not a sexual artifact. When you accept, and promote, the concept that nursing an infant 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 in advertising cars, underwear and beer! 

You also create space for the debate to include when and why weaning should occur and further undermine normal nursing practices from establishing. It is relevant that many of the high profile cases lately have been about nursing toddlers. Every single time a breastfeeding supporter has comment on the RHM situation 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 in the to-ing and fro-ing debates.
One is the myth of the ‘indiscreet’ women, making it harder for laws to be passed, as she ‘whips it out’ and alienates people. The irresponsible and insensitive mother who fails us all by being brazen with her breasts.
The other 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. The mothers who need to understand that nursing older infants needs to be done privately to prevent more outcry.
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 artifact. 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. The figures are probably similar for most western nations. Many many more get ill, and in the UK, the cost to the National Health Service of treating formula fed infants with resulting infections runs into millions every year. This cost is long before we start totting up the treatment for the long terms risks of heart disease, diabetes etc – or the misery and pain that blights many lives when diagnosis of the most serious illnesses are made.
In the wider world, 3 500 babies a day die for lack of breastfeeding. In the time it’s taken me to write this – over 7 000 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 and 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 choose 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 sensibilities 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 achieved, as we move on to tomorrow.
The right of the human infant to receive sustained nurture and nutrition when it needs it, is a human birth right that must be protected. The right of a mother to share her essential biology with her infant must be protected. We must take it upon ourselves to uphold that essential, primal right, and empower all mothers to protect their own dyad at all costs. Let us have no more hungry infants removed from our view. Let us have no more mothers pressured into ignoring their infant’s hunger from fear. Let us stop pretending that the act of feeding a child via a bottle, is even a pale comparison of the real thing: a warm, responsive and loving human breast, adjusting its own output and content to perfectly match the psychobiological needs of the infant and the mother! Cultural values that suppress this union, be they medical, social, or family based, need to be challenged and refuted at every opportunity. We must support the dyad and protect their rights. Right?


cAt said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you! Very thought provoking.