We interrupt the regularly scheduled MOOCopalyse in education with this little Public Service Announcement about oppression and outrage.
WARNING: This is probably a trigger post. It’s also probably a rant, though it isn’t meant to be. It’s intended to be spoken in my nice teacher voice. Don’t mind the shaking.
Rehtaeh Parsons died on Sunday in Nova Scotia. She hanged herself. After she was raped by four of her high school classmates who shared photos which got her shunned and slutshamed but the police took ten months to even interview the accused, then concluded there was no evidence to prosecute. Anonymous took an interest today and lo and behold, the authorities are re-opening the case.
That’s the backdrop. If you haven’t heard of Rehtaeh, you should go read her dad’s words about her. Especially the ones where he points out that no, she wasn’t bullied to death…she was disappointed to death, by people she trusted. By the societal mechanisms and social contract that are supposed to protect us and seek justice on our behalf, but so often fail victims of rape and all other kinds of sexual violence and abuse of power and instead heap further shame and re-victimization on those who are vulnerable. Especially – not only, but especially – young women. Especially when “boys will be boys” kinds of attitudes are brought in to justify the kind of systemic failure that led her to believe the world wasn’t a place she could live in anymore. Especially that.
But this isn’t about Rehtaeh. It’s about the fact that to many of us – men and women – her story is all kinds of familiar. Maybe personal, maybe no. Maybe just a horror we’d like not to see happen to anyone again. But CNN’s Steubenville apologia was only last month. Amanda Todd died less than seven months ago. We’re getting the message that this isn’t going to just go away unless we DO something. But we don’t know what to do, so we talk about it.
We live in strange times. Everybody gets to have a public opinion and 700 channels to share it on and I for one welcome our new Bedlam overlords.
But there is a strain of discourse rising in the cloud that is starting to permeate a great many of the conversations I happen on. It’s the idea that women critiquing men is oppressive and equates to bigotry.
Before I get the soapbox out, let me acknowledge it’s been a bad week on Teh Internets already. We’re all het up. Everybody has opinions about Margaret Thatcher and a lot of them are ugly which may well prove the old proverb ‘you reap what you sow’ but doesn’t make for a particularly productive public conversation. Kim Jong Un is rattling his
soother sabre again. And from the What Were They Thinking Files, the world’s least thought-through call to racial reconciliation EVER, offending most people with ears but getting noses out of joint in the comments sections of major magazines, too.
(Note, fellow educators: a generation of anti-racist education in North America seems to have succeeded in making the word ‘racist’ an offensive thing to call somebody, while utterly failing to actually educate a vast swath of the citizenry about what racism, um, IS.)
Then the Rehtaeh Parsons story hit the media.
And it’s heartbreaking. Women AND men (and everybody else who may not fit the tidy binary) are sad and mad and want to make change and want to talk about it.
But there’s something weird to me about these conversations. I have a son as well as a daughter and a deeply vested interest in having this whole cultural mess improve for everybody involved. But when I see the people who are most societally affected by issues of rape, sexual violence, and patriarchal power responses Talking Out Loud about some of these awful, hidden, stigmatized issues, in public, and expressing their anger and frustration, I see that as good. I see that as where change begins. Maybe.
But if, god forbid, their conversation gets emotional or dares to generalize fear and anger, even in a culture where 90% of rape victims are female and 99% of perpetrators male, there is frequently a descent into accusations of “reverse sexism” and bigotry.
To which I quote The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Here’s the thing about bigotry, folks.
You’re right, generalizations aren’t nice. And they do tend to make playing nicely together across differences difficult. All of us would do well to remember that. But not all conversations are about playing nice: sometimes they’re about building up enough of a chorus to cross a Rubicon and not go back, about reaching that “we’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore” place.
I think all of us have the potential to play a productive role in conversations about equality and sexism…whatever our gender. I absolutely believe that. I want everybody in on this conversation, mad as hell.
But part of this conversation will involve being mad at patriarchy and male privilege, guys. And that doesn’t mean being mad at you personally. Unless you stand in the place of defending the whole system. Unless you insist on seeing any generalization of yourself as bigotry.
Let me explain. Generalizations – particularly about girls and sexuality – are at the root of the unequal power relations that not only allow young women to be gang raped at parties without intervention but to be revictimized after by both peers and the refusal of the authorities – the legal authorities, even the educational authorities – to dignify her violation with real consequences.
Yes, men are also raped, both by men and by women. This is true and generally the authorities don’t deal with the situation any better (sometimes worse) because that is the problem with rape: it is being made subject to the power of another and when you are on the low side of that equation systems of power like the law are simply not designed to raise you up. For women and girls, who are already on the low side of the gender power equation in our society, rape reinforces that status with a shock. For men, it must be like waking up in the wrong body.
But it is difficult to grow up in a female body and not have the generalizations that make women disproportionately vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexual objectification and sexual assault become, at some point, personal. The generalizing dismissals of “she wanted it” and “she was asking for it”: we have heard them all our lives. We ask ourselves, surely they wouldn’t say that about me? If we are lucky, we never find out. Many of us aren’t lucky. There is a lot of hurt and fear and anger and years of being subject to generalizations that are brought to these conversations about change. And when people are hurt and scared and angry they are not always the most careful about what they say. They don’t necessarily make the conversation safe or welcoming for men.
But that is not bigotry, folks.
In any societal binary – black/white, male/female, gay/straight – there’s a group with less power. Those in that group get generalized based on stereotypes all the time. These generalizations can have damaging and hurtful effects in all aspects of life, and they get institutionalized in phrases like “boys will be boys,” which essentially says, “that’s the way it is, dearie.” That’s sexism. Racism is the institutionalized power of whiteness. Heterosexism is the institutionalized power of straightness.
Bigotry is perpetuating a stereotype that reinforces the imbalance of power.
The generalizations DO work the other way, sure. Of course black people have stereotypes about white people. These stereotypes have been and continue to be a survival mechanism. Women have them about men, for the same reasons. Sometimes, in a story like Rehtaeh’s, those get triggered and people get angry and say things about “men” as a category that are not universally applicable and are hurtful to individuals. And I don’t think that’s productive. But neither is it “reverse sexism” or bigotry, because the institutional power is NOT on the side of those generalizations.
It is prejudice, yes. It can be really hurtful to be on the receiving end of it. Absolutely. I think it’s important for men to talk about that, and for women to hear it. But until women are an equal proportion of CEOs and judges and law enforcement officers and other powerful figures that men face when they seek a place in society and justice when wounded, then that prejudice is not systematized. It’s not bigotry. It is a reaction against years of being diminished.
I think to participate productively IN those conversations we have to recognize that society does not yet treat men & women equally and IF we happen to fall on the power side of that societal equation and we are nonetheless keen to talk about issues of gender and violence and trying to prevent other people suffering what Rehtaeh Parsons suffered and her family continues to suffer, we need to come into the conversation understanding that the generalizations of how our gender has abused our power – and by extension, other actual human beings – will and DO fall on our shoulders.
No matter how sincere or good we, personally, are.
No matter how difficult it is to hear people make sloppy, sweeping generalizations that don’t apply to us.
We cannot show that those generalizations don’t apply to us by expecting to be treated with the privilege that marks our group in the first place.
If I choose to engage in conversations about racism, the generalizations about white people that will inevitably come out in that conversation as people work through their experiences will fall on me. Because I’m white. They’ll fall on me if I choose to engage in conversations about heterosexism, because I’m a woman with a male partner and therefore that particular inequality works and has always worked to benefit me while others suffer.
If I want to show that I’m an ally, I have to own that the inequality exists and privileges me.
If people of colour talk about white people as racist and I want to participate in that conversation toward their goal of making it better, I need to show that I get what racism IS and reject that worldview. That doesn’t mean rejecting who I am or being ashamed or beating myself up. It means digging deeply until I understand where my whiteness gets me treated as an individual rather a representative of a stereotyped group, and then being open to learning more about how I can help make change. Without getting butthurt by generalized anger, or needing the people on the oppressed side of the equation to make me feel okay. Same with classism. Heterosexism. Ablism.
We can all be in all these conversations. But we need to get that there are structural inequalities that are bigger than our individual experiences of them, especially where we’ve benefited from those inequalities. And we need to be able to hear the ways in which those inequalities have hurt other people, even if the stories are ugly and make us uncomfortable and want reassurance that the ugliness isn’t our fault. Maybe it isn’t. But we can only show that by being willing to stand next to it and use it as a mirror for our own actions and then making change. In ourselves. Which will allow the generalizations, ultimately, to die.