Friday, April 24, 2009

What about the girls? What about the women? Recognition, Discrimination, and Warfare

[the above image is from here]

Common issues that dovetail with matters of oppression are the definition of harm and the matter of whose pain is seen and responded to as if the ones in pain were human? In the dominant society in which I live, words are sometimes seen as acts that can do harm, but often are not. I grew up with the saying "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me". Uhhh, bullshit.

We are now, in this first decade of a new Christian calendar century, just realising that homophobic speech is a harmful act, harmful the way physical assault is harmful: injurious to the being of another; inducing shame; causing pain; changing who a person is so that they henceforth have lower self-esteem and are more prone to being self-destructive. We can now begin to collectively see, in the dominant media--between the latest fashion news, mid- and small-sized automobile crash-test results, Hollywood gossip, sports scores, weather reports, and kitchen recipes that can be cooked in less than twenty minutes--that harm through speech acts can and does cost some young and older people their lives. Witness the cases of the two boys, Carl and Jaheem, who committed suicide due to repeated anti-gay harassment. The speech acts alone, without adding in physical bullying, without these children also being punched or hit while being called those misogynist/homophobic names, are, in some cases deadly. Will those among us who use such terms repeatedly against one or more individuals be considered murderers, should the tormented child take their own life? If not, why not? (If I drink and drive, I might face a fine if caught, as long as I'm not in a car accident along the way from point A to point B. If I hit a vehicle and kill someone, serious charges can be, and ought to be, brought against me. Regardless of my intentions, if I get into a car while drunk, and end up hitting another person and killing them, I have committed, at the very least "(hu)man-slaughter".

I think of this also when I consider how, post-"9/11" it became a much more serious matter for white males, particularly non-Nordic looking ones, to "joke" about having a bomb while waiting on line to board an airplane. This has everything to do with a society's shared experience of threat or harm. Usually, only those who are in oppressor classes (whites, Christians, men, the rich, Westerners, the non-disabled, etc.) are understood by the media to have experienced a single act of harm or threat that was VERY SIGNIFICANT. I was deeply saddened, and at times angry, after "9/11" because it became extremely clear to me that only some people's pain matters. White folks' pain matters. Men's pain matters. Westerners' pain matters. The pain of those with wealth matters. The pain of those in nations bombed by our missiles don't matter, in our media.

The harm of grossly intensified discrimination against anyone who looks "Middle Eastern" or who is categorised, often stupidly, as "Muslim"* is not really registered in the hearts and minds of the oppressor-class masses as real harm. (*For example, Sikhs wearing a turban with a chunni, or one or the other, is part of traditional Sikh attire, and is not a form of religious dress connected with any branch at all of Muslim attire.) "Their" pain becomes "our" pain, if "we're" white and not Muslim or Middle Eastern, only when "one of our own"--a middle aged "clean cut" (read: not swarthy) white male, an elderly white woman with grey and white hair, is detained and frisked at the airport because they happened to be the seventeenth person randomly chosen to be detained and frisked before being allowed to board a plane that day.

Only when that happens does discrimination against a non-dominant group, in recent years particularly against Muslims and Middle Eastern people, globally, become remotely real. Derogatory language and other violence against anyone who looks Muslim or Middle Eastern*, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or region of family origin, is experienced in the form of harassment, threats, taunts, physical shoves, misogynist slurs, and other forms of violence against women, girls, men, boys, property, and land. (*Only about 20% of the total world Muslim population live in Arab countries.)

So when "our" economy, for example, takes what's termed a "downturn" (as opposed, say, to naming it a necessary step in the ending of capitalism), suddenly the media is aware of "people's distress and anxieties" about money and property. This "new concern" more deeply invisibilises the anxiety, distress, and pain many feel who were already not economically secure, inside and outside the U.S.

Whole classes of people only know economic distress; they never experience the "comeback". Some of my family falls into that category, of the permanently poor. Others in my family fall into the category of those who have "wealthy white folks' blues", which is to say, they are upset, worried, anxious, or distressed about whether the value of their half-million dollar home has gone down by 20%, or what's happening to their financial investments. Wealthy white folks speak to one another about "the market" and the condition of their stock portfolio often in earshot of people who will never own a stock portfolio, or a home. I say all of this because if you are wealthy, but are less wealthy now due to the downturn in the economy, please don't expect poor and working class people to offer you a back rub or foot massage if they overhear you being so rude as to discuss such matters in mixed class spaces. For example, telling your corporate colleague, over breakfast at a nearby diner, about "how much your stock fund has taken a hit" in front of the woman who is serving you eggs, bacon, and toast with extra butter, please, may be experienced by her as both of you being "jerks", at least. For good reason.

What we experience is often determined, if only partly, by past experience. Because, where I live, what happens to white men in certain kinds of off-shore wars is viewed as some kind of "standard" for what we comprehend as "traumatic" and "disablingly distressing", we can commonly refer to the U.S. white male war vet as having "post-traumatic stress disorder". Rarely do those of us who are white and male in the U.S. see the civilian war survivor--usually of color, often female as a likely sufferer of "post-traumatic stress disorder". Rarely do white men, as a group, see women and girls as "survivors" of a gender war. Someone "fighting as military personnel" counts as being a human being, often a hero, especially if you are white and male and from a white-majority country. Such a man is understood immediately as "probably having gone through something that has been so awful that he may never be the same". Note how invisibilised the civilian war survivor is, and women and girls across region and race, when we express only this amount of concern about "those impacted by men's military wars".

If we understand both the military war veteran and the civilian military war survivor to have varying forms of PTSD, we might appreciate and be sensitive to the fact that sudden loud noises might have a different effect on "them" than they do on "us", unless we're also survivors of trauma that involved sudden noise. It is not for "us" to tell "them" they are "over-reacting". What constitutes "over-reaction", in other words, is contextual, and depends, in part, on what someone's life has been up to the current moment. My experience of white men, generally, is that we "under-react" to most things, except when a woman doesn't coddle and care for us.

The experiences of the disabled and the oppressed are usually invisibilised by dominant media. Rarely does popular media show us what it means to be oppressed or disabled, in a way that registers viscerally as well as cognitively. And obviously there are a great number of ways to experience oppression: defiantly, depressively, aggressively, hopelessly, etc.

In the U.S. during the last forty years, the general population, including the oppressor classes, have been sensitised, to varying degrees, to the reality of sexual violence by men against women. What has yet to make the mainstream press, on any consistent basis, is an understanding of this violence, both endemic and systematic (not "accidental" or "anecdotal") as a form of warfare. That guns and knives are often used against women when men do their misogynistic harm, does not suffice to make it "count" as warfare. That men maim and kill women routinely does not warrant the phrase "war against a group of people by an aggressive enemy" being uttered.

I think this means dominant society and its media is in huge denial about men's war against women and girls.

One of most common liberal issues I see use up a lot of people's time and energy is when someone who is experiencing being oppressed by someone--verbally, states that is the case, the verbal oppressor states "You're just taking that the wrong way" or "You are too sensitive" or "You are over-reacting--chill out!" or "Why do you take offense to so many things!!"

Each of these responses is not only insensitive, but is another layer of emotional harm to the one being oppressed. Personally, as a white gay Jewish man, I don't need any white non-Jew telling me what is and is not "anti-Semitic" in speech. My gut tells me just fine, thank you very much. And if I'm speaking or behaving in a way that is condescending or threatening to a woman, and don't realise it or intend it, that doesn't mean my actions are not what the hearer says they are.

Oppressors historically define reality, including what constitutes fair and reasonable treatment of those they oppress. Inside many white Christian communities, for example, even those that are not "fundamentalist" there is a notion, an idea, promulgated, that women and men are "compliments" not "equals". This argument is used to spiritually support up all manner of misogyny and sexism, and many forms of male supremacist behavior and attitudes. If a man sees women as "his compliment", I'd assume the man has some serious sexism issues he hasn't bothered to check at the doorway of his social world.

What I think about whenever I hear about the media's presentation of human pain and atrocity, is "who else is suffering in this or other ways"? We know that the pain and suffering of males, whether they are males in only-oppressor classes or not, is real. We understand, for example, that boys who have been and are being molested by Catholic priests and other Christian preachers, are being harmed, irreparably. A great deal of media attention was brought to bear, critically, if also exploitively, on the horrid matter of priests sexually abusing boys.

And white men suffer too, of course. I have suffered as an adult, as has my brother, and other white male relatives in my family of origin. Our suffering, or dimensions of it, at least, is registered as real and is also transformed, as Andrea Dworkin once noted, into great theatre, visual art, and literature. We assume, here in the U.S., at least, if not also in the U.K., that Shakespeare writes of "human" suffering, even while he writes of a specific kind that is very gendered and raced. Which students are being taught that Shakespeare wrote colloquial ethnically specific stories primarily about the inner and outer worlds of those with gender and sexuality privilege?

I do not wish to minimise anyone's pain, except when its expression is grossly insensitive to those who are suffering far more.

When I hear the stories of the abused, including of white male military war veterans, and of white Catholic boys I feel sadness and sometimes rage at the unchecked harm produced by white male supremacist societies. This is the case whether stories are of young males being bullied, teased, taunted, exposed to homophobic and female-hating slander or slurs, enduring spiritual and physical and psychic betrayal at the hands of those entrusted to spiritually care for young people, or of boys neglected and abused in other ways.

And, mixed in with that sadness and rage, I often wonder: what about the girls? Is their pain also being recognised? Are there as many reports about girls who kill themselves because of lesbophobia and heterosexism? If a woman who knows her sexuality not to be "hetero" becomes the spouse of a man and has children with him, and also becomes increasingly depressed and despondent, does her depression and despair count as being caused by homophobia and heterosexism? If she has committed suicide, is her death registered as "in the same category" as those others who have taken their lives due to these forms of oppression and discrimination? If women are "never the same" after being raped and battered by a father, boyfriend, or husband, or due to growing up impoverished, or because they were given up for adoption because they are female, or were not given up for adoption but knew, very clearly, that their care-givers value boys more than girls, is their pain registered in the dominant society's psyche and told in its media, accurately and honestly, not exploitively and sensationally? Does it, too, become great art?

The question I want the answer to, if there is one, is this:
What else has to happen to girls and women for the dominant media to regularly report on what happens to them as "part of men's war against women"? We in the U.S. seem to barely grasp economic class warfare, although elsewhere in the world Leftists seem quite clear about it: capitalism kills, not just when a caught, criminal corporate executive shoots himself in the head. We seem to barely grasp racist warfare, the war of whites against all people of color, although at least some anti-racists are clear about that. The plights and plans of those of us who are Indigenous are never spoken of it dominant society, and the destruction of Aboriginal people is rarely seen as "genocide".

To this list of grievances I add one more: what of this endemic and systematic violence against girls and women by men? Why doesn't that count as "warfare" too?

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