That father shall not have the last word

Drama Box specialises in forum theatre. Currently, its production is titled “How much?”, about prostitution, sex workers, and our attitudes. A small incident happened during the intervention time of its performance on Saturday afternoon (9 April 2011) which illustrated very well the conservative mind. Let me describe the incident and explain what it illuminated.

First of all, I need to explain what is meant by “intervention”. This is the part of a forum theatre event when members of the audience are invited to speak up about one or more mistakes that a character has made. It leads to a discussion about what the character should have done instead.

The scene in question was one in which a young female was waiting for her next appointment in a coffee shop in Geylang, Singapore’s red light district. A coffee shop employee looks at her lecherously from head to toe. An audience discussion then ensued about how he should not be doing that, even if she might be a sex worker. It violates her dignity as a person.

A some point in the discussion, a man from the audience said, “The coffee shop guy also insulted her father.”

(At this point, I should clarify that I wasn’t taking notes, so the dialogue below has been reconstructed from memory. However, since the words were memorable, I’m quite sure I have captured them fairly well.)

Half the audience then went, “WHAT???” with some adding, “Are daughters the property of their fathers?”

To that, the man said, “Hey, I am also a father, so I understand what fathers feel. If she were my daughter, I would feel very insulted by the coffee shop guy’s behaviour.”

After a bit of uproar, during which the man said something more, using the word “honour” in the process, the moderator moved on to another topic.

I thought moving on was a mistake. That comment potentially opened the door to a deeper exploration of our attitudes to women and sex work and how our attitudes to sex work are linked to our gender attitudes. So, I am going to finish saying here what I never got the chance to say yesterday. I don’t think that father should have had the last word.

The man was apparently concerned that in the discussion preceding his intervention, interest centred on the young woman’s feelings, ignoring what to him might seem to be another important aspect — the feelings of the father. The question then becomes: Why were the feelings of the father considered so important to him that he had to voice out that point of view?

Almost surely, he would not consider daughters to be properties of fathers, yet he saw the father’s feelings as worthy of mention, almost to the point of trumping the woman’s feelings. The process in his mind was obviously an unconscious one. While he agreed that the coffee-shop guy’s behaviour was wrong, something in him judged the audience discussion to be missing the true measure as to how wrong it really was. The young woman’s feelings were no doubt important, but female feelings do not count as much as male feelings.  A correct assessment of the wrongness of the coffee shop guy’s behaviour cannot be made by merely looking at female feelings alone. It was essential to incorporate within the assessment the feelings of males linked to her, and their conceptions of honour.

It’s not dissimilar to the idea that a woman’s testimony in court should be given half the weight of a man’s, and that violation of a female’s personhood is an affront to her male relatives’ honour sufficient to justify revenge by those relatives.

This higher valuation given to the male and his feelings is a classic feature of social conservatism.

Then, when challenged, the man did something else that was also classic conservatism. He quickly asserted his authority. Additionally, his choice of authority to assert was one that was based on relational rank: “I am also a father,” he said. He assumed that the audience would accept his point of view because he had authority.

As I have explained before in previous articles, the conservative mindset gives greater weight to authority than the liberal mindset. Appeals to authority therefore works well in a conservative-leaning crowd, and it becomes force of habit for many speakers. To a liberal-minded audience, it does not work, because authority counts for much less to them. They also see family differently (much less hierarchically) and therefore “father” does not have the same meaning to liberals as it does to conservatives.

It was a pity that this learning opportunity was missed.

19 Responses to “That father shall not have the last word”


  1. 1 Gard 10 April 2011 at 18:08

    Yes, a reflection opportunity had been missed.

    1) Would it be any different if it had been a female audience voicing out, “The coffee shop guy also insulted her mother”?

    2) Would it be any different if the daughter had been a son, and the coffee shop employee is female (or male)?

    3) Would it be any different if it was the son of some important minister doing the looking?

    4) Would it be any different if the daughter evoked disgust in the coffee shop employee? Indifference? What are the range of reactions that are appropriate to ‘honour the father’?

    5) Would it be any different if the daughter looked back lewdly at the coffee shop employee? Would both fathers (of the daughter and of the employee) be insulted at the same time?

  2. 2 georgia tong 10 April 2011 at 18:36

    Thanks for the great insight. Never thought of it this way. It opens up my mind.

  3. 3 Dy 10 April 2011 at 18:51

    I caught this play as well. I’d be keen to hear your views on it. And what would you’ve done differently if you were min and you were faced with the justice seeking photographer?

  4. 4 ST 10 April 2011 at 22:50

    I attended the same production but on Sat evening. I thought a disproportionate amount of time was spent discussing whether a coffeeshop worker or any other person had the right to stare or ogle at a woman who was dressed ‘provocatively’ and if women should ‘expect’ certain type or amount of attention if she were at Geylang compared to at a more decent location, as suggested by some audience members.

    As for the comment by the father in the article above, could it be that he was appealing to other fathers/men in the audience about the ‘do onto others’ rule?

    • 5 R 11 April 2011 at 22:22

      Having witnessed it, it was clear he felt that the father’s honour was being insulted and that this was the greater transgression. It was not an appeal to other fathers but perhaps a general appeal to men to remember the honour of other men when dealing with women.

  5. 6 patriot 10 April 2011 at 23:47

    The Father’s focus on honour was absolutely out of place if he had been annoyed by the coffee shop employee’s lecherous gaze at the sex worker.
    If the Father had any honour in himself, he should never have allowed his daughter to work in any profession that will tarnish her own image as well as that of her entire clan.

    patriot

    • 7 yawningbread 11 April 2011 at 00:10

      What if the daughter is above legal age? Does she have a right to control her body and decide what she wants to do?

      You wrote: “he should never have allowed his daughter to work in any profession” Can fathers allow or disallow daughters who are adults from doing what they want to do?

  6. 8 Sandman 11 April 2011 at 00:02

    Interesting observation YB.

  7. 9 Raphael 11 April 2011 at 00:10

    Alex,

    I suppose you have a word constraint or something, so you are not presenting the complete picture.

    I have a question: If the individual who had the last word was not a father, but instead was a mother, would you still be writing the same article, and would the crowd still have responded the same way?

    If not, why?

    From what you related, I fail to see where the guy had a “higher valuation of male feelings to female feelings”; you seem to have jumped to a conclusion simply because he mentioned the word “father” – much like, I would add, the surrounding liberal crowd.

    If, as you point out, he does not treat daughters as the property of their fathers, then what is your big diatribe about?

    As far as things go, you can judge that the coffeeshop employee’s behaviour was wrong based on the girl’s feelings alone; the behaviour is wrong even if she was the only one affected. However, you can’t judge how wrong it is without reference to the people around her, her mother, father, siblings, cousins, boyfriend (if any), girlfriend (if she identifies as a lesbian), etc etc, who may also be affected.

    So, the other way of looking at the situation is to see that the man – whether he was conservative or otherwise – was pointing out the narrow-mindedness of the liberal audience, in forgetting that the girl doesn’t exist in a glass bubble.

    In conclusion, I agree that a learning opportunity was missed – but by both sides, not just the “conservative” father, whose mysterious prejudices you have yet to prove.

    So, the corollary question to you is: Why do you think that the father’s feelings are so unimportant that they deserve to be left out of the conversation?

  8. 10 prettyplace 11 April 2011 at 00:46

    Wow…honour killings.

  9. 11 yawningbread 11 April 2011 at 01:06

    Gard, Raphael –

    Such statements are almost never made by the mother. This situational asymmetry must be taken into consideration for a proper interpretation. To deliberately ignore the context is to deliberately misinterpret the meaning behind those words.

    Secondly, it is one thing to be affected, it is another to feel that the insult passed through the young woman to her father. Even the most liberal-minded parent would feel affected — whenever our loved ones are hurt, we feel hurt too. But when the man spoke about his honour and how he was insulted, he was on quite a different plane. He wasn’t affected because of what the young girl was feeling, but because in his view, the outer shell of his own personhood encompass his family members’; he makes a claim on the personhood of his daughter as part of his own personhood, such that anyone who transgresses his daughter’s personhood also transgresses his own.

    This is then related to Patriot’s comment about “not allowing”. Again, here is another clue that patriarchal mindsets make claims on other lives, as opposed to respecting others’ autonomy, even one’s daughter’s. Classic conservatism again.

    • 12 Gard 11 April 2011 at 11:15

      I am gender-neutral towards this scenario, but your point about “Such statements are almost never made by the mother” raises intriguing questions.

      Is it because the mother, even if she encompasses the daughter, tolerates or welcomes the attention as an heterosexual female? While the father would be upset at unwanted attention?

      I am deeply curious if the father would have voiced out if the coffee shop employee had been a girl instead. If the father doesn’t, it would strengthen your hypothesis of ‘encompassing’, yes?

  10. 13 patriot 11 April 2011 at 14:18

    To answer YB, me shall just declare that me am both conservative in the Oriental Sense and that me belongs to a family, from the First known Ancestor to the Last Offspring of my clan. Me belongs to a family, a clan, the society and the Universe. Any dishonourable behaviour to me means tarnishing and damaging the honour of everyone else but more so to immediate family members.

    On the other hand, if me am the father of the said female character, i would let her enjoys her full freedom by making an open declaration that me am no more her father and that she is a most shameful person to me. I will personally belittle her to the maximun me could inflict on her, that’s how i will do. And it would be best that I will never see her again.

    In any case, anyone in the sex trade cannot be talking about self esteem, respect and much less honour. They are to service their customers whether they are physical and or medically fit and vice -versa. Me does not know if prostitutes(both genders) are at liberty to reject customers even if they are lepers or those infected with sexual diseases.

    To conclude, me believes that i will be accused of being extreme, however, i will make no apology for been so. I do agree to some activities associated with upholding honour.

    patriot

  11. 14 The one who added something... 11 April 2011 at 22:36

    I still feel that the concept of “ownership” – that the daughter was the father’s property – was part of his belief system even if the idea was not so well formed. Ownership in the sense that another man would need his permission/approval to treat her as a sexual being because until then, she is daddy’s little girl.

    Had she been married and “the responsibility of another man,” would the dishonor have passed to the husband?

    You are absolutely right that we had a chance to dig deep and lost it. I think the moderator was trying to save him from a savaging by the crowd.

    But actually he was not alone. A middle aged woman from across the aisle let out a little cheer of support when he mentioned the honour of the father. Her feelings were writ large across her face, “Finally someone who understands!”

    The majority view held in that room may well be the minority outside it.

  12. 15 Raphael 12 April 2011 at 04:50

    Alex,

    Thanks for your reply.

    I share the same curiosity with Gard as with regards to how the mother fares in this regard. Which you haven’t addressed.

    Also, I wonder what “context” the “situational assymetry” lies in. I am using the quotes not as scare-quotes, but to indicate the terms I don’t understand in your usage. It is rather under the belt to accuse me and Gard of deliberately misinterpreting by ignoring the context when you fail to describe the context adequately yourself. One single word does not a context make. It alright if you have forgotten; but don’t expect people to read your memories.

    Next, from the bare-bones context that you did provide, the man did mention “also”. He was mentioning a point that he felt had been excluded by the liberal audience. And so, to ask the question back: you admit that even the most liberal parent will feel hurt if his/her close ones are hurt; in that case, is there any reason to discount their hurt in favour of their loved ones’? And if not, then why was the liberal audience obsessed with the hurt felt by the girl, to the exclusion of the hurt faced by her other relatives, including the father (or the mother)? Is it because liberal audiences generally don’t care about people’s families? In that sense then, I think that a chance for a lesson was lost: not just for that father, but for you and the other liberals in the audience as well.

    An obsession with honour is bad, and is unfortunately present in conservatism, but honour itself is not so. Your interpretation of what the father said seems to demonstrate more of what you think than what he thinks. The other way of looking at it is that the father loves his daughter so much that he identifies his own honour with hers. Instead of making a “patriarchal” claim on his daughter’s honour, he lets her make a claim on his own. Thus, when the lecher claims the daugher’s honour, he is claiming the father’s honour as well.

    The problem with conservatism is a parasitic reliance on honour; the problem with liberalism is that to avoid that parasitic reliance, it seals everyone up in a glass bubble, ultimately preventing them from having any real social contact with people.

    I also detect another irony in your criticism. Supposedly, the liberal case – which I take you support – is based on a concept of common dignity/personality (in the classical sense) amongst all humans. “All humans” includes the girl, but also the coffeeshop lecher (unfortunately) and the girl’s father. So isn’t the father’s appeal to his honour merely another variant of an appeal to common dignity that the liberal supports? If so, why are liberals so fussy about language?

    • 16 prettyplace 12 April 2011 at 19:35

      “Is it because liberal audiences generally don’t care about people’s families?” Rapheal

      “Again, here is another clue that patriarchal mindsets make claims on other lives, as opposed to respecting others’ autonomy, even one’s daughter’s. Classic conservatism again.”

      Operative phrase: Respecting others’ autonomy.

  13. 17 prettyplace 12 April 2011 at 19:38

    No mention is being made if the girl was enjoying it.

  14. 18 Paul 12 April 2011 at 22:12

    I’m with Raphael.

    Alex, it seems you over-simplify by going straight for the gender dimension. Surely the man’s point was first and foremost an expression of Confucian thinking (or at least some version of it), and that his sexism, if that’s what it was, is nested within the Confucian worldview, rather than simplistically being a symptom of the ‘conservative mind’.

    On a sidenote, I find that an unwillingness to really pursue difficult questions is a general shortcoming of forum theatre, which often ends up re-iterating quite conventional terms of debate, even if the points made may run somewhat counter to the offical line or social consensus.

  15. 19 Carpe Diem 21 April 2011 at 11:27

    I wasn’t there during the exchange and so cannot comment on the focus of the exchange whether the affront is on the male in the form of a father or female in the form of a mother.

    But I thought a good point that someone else in the comments had raised bears repeating: that when leering of another body (whether male or female) happens, it’s not just an affront to the feelings of that person in that body that needs to be taken into account, but also that of his/her parents (both male and female), who had biologically given this person his/her body.


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