Fifty Years Late, and International Women’s Day

This week has been important for two reasons quite different from being the start of the new writing course. The first reason is because Tuesday marked fifty years since “a group of scientists in the UK issued the first health warnings about smoking cigarettes,” and the second reason is because yesterday was International Women’s Day [세계 여성의 날].

Fifty Years Late

The ‘group of scientists in the UK’ was not just any random group of scientists sitting around a cafe chatting; it was actually the nation’s top group of most experienced and highly recognized doctors, known as the ‘Royal College of Physicians.’ This Tuesday marked 50 years since they released a report which was really important because it told the English-speaking world very loudly and very clearly of the very real, very direct, and very dangerous link between smoking cigarettes and a large collections of diseases, including cancer, lung disease, and heart disease. To mark the fiftieth anniversary, they released a new report which both reviewed the original and offered updated information as well. You can read it here.

I entitled this section ‘Fifty Years Late’ because, despite the information within the report being accurate and important, from start to finish, from the original report in 1962 to this week’s update, this information is late. German scientists knew and publicized quite loudly and clearly as early as the 1930s that cigarettes were extremely dangerous to one’s health. As a result, German military rations did NOT include cigarettes, as distinct from those in Allied nations (the UK, the Commonwealth, and the US).

Furthermore, the eminent British physiologist Sir Richard Doll had proven for himself and the English speaking world in 1952 the direct link between lung cancer and the increased risk of heart disease. Why did it take a full decade before the RCP released a report on this crucial information?!

Since then, this information is clearly not just late, but it is also very sadly and very badly reported by the media. Even Al Jazeera’s video clip highlighting the anniversary of the original report starts by showing images of people happily smoking.

The BBC’s clip is even worse, showing mini-interviews with both men and women, all of whom speak with high-class British accents, and all of whom profess not to care about the report but rather speak of their wish to continue smoking. While it is of course possible that all these people were genuine random members of the public, the fact that all these people were apparently upper class and all seemingly smokers in itself demonstrates a very narrow selection of the wider public for the BBC to select for interviews, and so amounts to free advertising for cigarette companies, and so the eventual but unnaturally early, and likely painful death of so many more of the BBC’s viewers.

Media, and particularly news – with its apparent goal of representing truth and impartiality in reporting of what the unwary public viewers hope are facts – has a huge responsibility to not end up working with companies which aim for profit over the health of the public. And yet, to not actively work against those companies is to by default end up working for them. Showing pictures of happy smokers is the same as advertising for those companies, even in a news clip which features an anti-smoking message and a person suffering from illness because of her history of smoking. For this reason too then, I use the word ‘late’ in my title in its other meaning, to also mean ‘dead’ or deceased, and to represent the history of the news media in contributing to the deaths of so many more of their own viewers by not working harder and more honestly in the fight against smoking.

2012 International Women’s Day

Thursday marked the 101st International Women’s Day. Similarly to the history of work against the promotion of smoking, the advance of the right to equality of women around the world has been painfully slow, with many governments continuing to make excuses such as the state of the economy for not supporting women by providing help such as ‘safe homes’ as places of emergency refuge for victims of domestic violence.

Another important way of supporting women was finally achieved only in recent years in Aotearoa/ New Zealand, which included the passing of the Domestic Violence Act of 1995. This allowed the police to enter homes where domestic violence [가정폭력]  is occurring, no longer allowing and empowering men to assault women and escape criminal charge merely because it was their own wife or partner, and home. The availability of the issuance of a ‘Protection Order’  (if someone feels threatened), or a ‘Police Safety Order’ (if the police believe there is a danger to someone within a household – ie. very importantly NOT needing the assent or agreement of the woman involved – ) are very great developments in the laws of land working for the good of women. I really hope my adopted home of South Korea develops something like these two measures for my Korean mothers, sisters, and nieces, sometime very soon. I have seen far too many women and children (male and female) hurt and recovering from obviously traumatic family violence here.

Finally, even though it has taken a number of years, it is good to finally see the message launched only a few years ago reach more widely and have greater impact and reception around the world. This message is that the effects of climate change hit and hurt women and thus by extension again children more than they do men.

The importance of the effects of climate change was underscored by TEDtalks recently hosting the great Dr. James Hansen who spoke about his life’s work studying climate change and then promoting the crucially urgent need to start really dealing with it as a major international problem.

Would you risk arrest for your beliefs? What do you feel strongly enough about that you would ever risk arrest? And, what other grandfathers do you know who would risk arrest for their beliefs?

Despite the fact that Dr James Hansen is obviously a man working hard at promoting this important issue, recent surveys show that it is mostly women who believe in the importance of dealing with climate change. What about you and your friends? How many are women, and how many are men, and of them, which ‘believe’ recent deadly extreme weather events around the world are as a result of climate change caused by ‘man-made’ global warming?

Another commentator draws the links between racism and sexism, and shows, despite her obvious ongoing disdain for racism, that among young people, the effects of sexism are not only more violent, but they are also less openly acknowledged and more widely accepted as simply being okay, and just a matter of current local culture. I agree with this writer that this is a very sad thing to realise, and I hope all such cultures change to a state of greater quality equality and safety for women immediately.

It has been interesting to note the different reactions to International Women’s Day between the UK, the US, and South Korea. The Prime Minister’s office of Great Britain released a report which was quoted heavily in the apparently left-wing news site Huffington Post describing domestic violence as an ‘iceburg,’ and yet the same report was then effectively critiqued by Al Jazeera in what does appear to be a case of balanced journalism, highlighting as it does the cuts by central government in that country to women’s programmes, although not quite putting those cuts in context. In contrast, in the US, one woman in particular is standing out for her stance against the Republican party’s attack on the rights of women there. Teresa Sayward (NY,R) says that she would rather vote for the Democratic President Obama than her own party because of the Republican attack on the rights of women recently.

Teresa Sayward (NY,R)

In Korea, the Korean Herald features a report on international efforts to mark the day almost everywhere except Korea itself. The report is notable for being quite full and long, which is good, and also for featuring a nice large photo of Angelina Jolie’s face, which is never bad exactly, but somewhat distracts from the point of sexism in the most unfortunate way, although yes, one could equally try and argue that it helps attract attention to those points for the men initially interested only in looking at her picture. How strong a position in an argument is this, do you think?

The Korea Times features a weak and wordy editorial by a professor from a university in India, which is easily characterized by its laughable paradox noted between the two lines revealing a pretty bad break from logic. In the first such line, he states: “Man and woman cannot be thought of as separate entities.” And yet nearer the end of the piece, he states: “Women are more existential than men mainly because of the former’s higher emotional quotient including patience, motivation and empathy with others in all circumstances.” Well, which is it, ‘M.M. Goel’ ? Are women the same, or are they different? I am really not sure of this guy’s point. He seems to use big words to drift around the idea of saying not much at all. It is a disappointing way for the Korea Times to mark such an important occasion.

In conclusion then, the abundance of bad quality media attention to an important week of media events merely serves to make the lack of progress on these important issues all the more obvious. The fights – against the power of tobacco companies and for the equal rights of women, in Korea as elsewhere – continue to be difficult, in a large part no doubt because of the very lack of support from the media itself.


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