Monday, May 16, 2011

On Moral Disability and Naming People and Countries "Great"

image is from here

How are we, whoever we are, to determine the moral caliber or capital of people--individuals, or people collectively, as with the people who rule a nation? I have been told my entire life that the United States is 'great' without qualification, by those who hold the most oppressive power in this country. I have been told by white het men that other white het men are the greatest men, the greatest humans in fact, on Earth, with a few exceptions.

I would be prepared to accept this as truth if only for one thing: the individuals, the classes of people, and the countries perpetrate atrocity without remorse or regret. It is as if all that individuals and classes of oppressor people and countries do is immediately not only forgiven but forgotten. Or forgotten without the chance to be forgiven--as if all harmed are immediately made to dissociate entirely from the harm done, or are made to perish so that there are no witnesses.

I grew up with a role model in one particular white het man. Well, many. But one in particular who commanded the attention of those around him. He was quite charismatic, good-natured, strong-willed, and self-assured. He loved his country, a country that perpetrated atrocities without ever being responsible for what it did, without ever naming the atrocities as such, and without making amends for harm done. My grandfather was cut from the cloth of this nation-state. He too was a perpetrator, but one of particular form of atrocity--child sexual abuse. He never named his crimes, never took responsibility for what he did, never making amends. He was socially, politically, and morally conservative. I'm not sure any more what "morally conservative" means: does it mean preserving the right to be immoral? It would appear so.

Make no mistake: I loved him, reader. I still do. He's gone now--he died a while ago, no longer aware enough of his own past to remember what he'd done. He passed from this world not being brought face to face with what he'd done. No one ever charged him with any crime--such is the case with most perpetrators. Such is the case with most crimes--they are accomplished without accountability or restriction of access to more victims.

My country perpetrates genocide and gynocide, but it won't admit to doing either. I love my country, I suppose. That's a bit abstract for me to say--far more abstract than saying that I love the relative who abused children. He didn't abuse me. I'm fairly sure of that. He was quite an amazing person in my life, actually. My country has abused me by permitting things to occur that it has the power to confront and stop: bullying in schools; child sexual abuse; anti-Semitism; the abuse of gay males. My country has the power to do anything conceivable, and most things that are inconceivable too. Why, then, won't it stop child sexual abuse?

It is a kind of moral failing to do nothing in the face of atrocity. It is another kind of moral failing to do something that makes the atrocities more prevalent, less identifiable as harm, and makes sure a whole category of perpetrators are only seen as "great". This country would, if its leaders could, identify my relative as a great man. He was great because he did some very good things and he was white, made a living, was educated, and was heterosexually male. He was able to make a living because he was white, primarily. And also heterosexually male.

Were he gay and had that been known, he couldn't have been seen as great. Were he a woman he wouldn't have been seen as great. And were he not white, whites would never have identified him as great. This is how it works in my country--only some people are candidates for greatness, and those qualifications have nothing to do with what someone accomplishes as much as it has to do with things like their race, gender, class, and sexuality. Can you name for me ten "great" lesbian women or gay men? I mean "great" according to people who are not lesbian or gay. If you can, please post their names here in the comments section. Again, the only criteria is that dominant media and a majority of heterosexuals have to believe them to be great. Not just good or kind or nice.

Heterosexism is a crime against humanity as yet unnamed as such by most heterosexuals. When lesbians and gay males declare this a truth, we are scoffed at by most heterosexuals, in my experience anyway. I've been corresponding with a lesbian woman who is very brave in declaring the violence of heterosexism "violent". She and I agree about a lot of things. This, surely, is one of them. But why is it that most heterosexuals don't see heterosexism as a form of institutionalised, systematically inflicted harm and injury to body, mind, and soul?

I'll tell you a story or two. When a different lesbian woman I know was a girl she had a crush on another girl that could not be explored publicly or privately. This woman is someone I know but is not a friend of mine. I was telling her a story about my first boyfriend and that reminded her of the pain of loss of this girl-friend.

My story to her was about a boy I knew when I was sixteen. He was fifteen. We fell in love, or in need, or into something very strong that I didn't fully understand. When his step-father found out he ordered his step-son to never see me again. The man had caught us embracing. He was horrified. Horrified. Not because children and women are raped. Not because of war. Not because of genocide. But because two males were embracing. Imagine the horror of it. Compared, I mean, to war, rape, and mass murder. (Frankly, I don't see the horror of this boy and I embracing decades ago, but perhaps I'm biased.) We'd not "had sex" or even gotten naked together. We were clothed and sitting on the boy's bed when his step-father burst into his bedroom, throwing the door open, looking furious, sending me home, and yelling at his step-son. (For embracing another boy.)

Had my boyfriend come home and told his step-father he'd beaten up another boy for saying something rude, I don't imagine the step-father would have been horrified. But I don't hold that man in esteem, I'll confess that right now. My soon to be ex-boyfriend has forgiven his step-father. I have not. My ex-boyfriend sort of had to forgive him because he was married to my ex's mother. He wanted to stay close to his mother, who would not leave the jerk man. So he forgave him. I had no relationship with his mother (who, it should be noted, did get what a terrible thing her husband did); I had nothing to gain or lose by forgiving the man who not only split us up, but then moved him to another high school, many miles away, ensuring we would grow apart. (We did, but we remained in contact over the years.)

The orders to stay away from me didn't keep us apart. We sneaked around together, and once again got caught; and then that was it. Then the jerk man moved my soon to be ex-boyfriend away, so that I'd be his ex-boyfriend and so he would--the step-father imagined--never have another boyfriend again. This was not the case. Within a few years he came out as gay. I think his step-father has come to accept this. But because the step-father was such a jerk, my ex learned how to be in emotionally abusive relationships, and was in one of those for many years with a man he finally got brave enough to leave. When one of your primary "care-givers" hates who you are, it doesn't instill in you a strong sense of deserving to be loved and respected.

The man who was a relative of mine did love me. He respected me. He showed me love and regard. But he also secretly abused other children, some of them many years before I was born, some after. I didn't learn about all of that until he was close to the end of his life, from natural causes. I took care of him somewhat in his last years. It was my pleasure to do so. And it was very hard after he died for me to put together all the pieces of his life--the good with the evil. The moral with the immoral.

I think because I grew up Jewish, it was always quite clear to me that a person or country--say, Hitler and Germany--could be viewed as great by many but be perpetrating atrocity all the while being praised and applauded. This taught me not to trust the judgment of the masses, especially if they are not the ones being targeted for death and other kinds of destruction. The Jews, for the most part, we not confused about whether Hitler was great. It was the white non-Jewish Germans and other European whites who thought of him that way. And before people judge "Jews" now, be sure you know what color we are--we were not and are not all white, for example. We were not and are not all of European descent; we were not and are not living anywhere near Israel and have little to nothing to do with policies practiced there against Palestinian people. Increasingly, I'm encountering non-Jewish people in various parts of the world who seem to be quite comfortable and self-assured in believing only negative things about "Jews" that they would not consider believing about Christian white people, for example.

I think this all should tell us a lot about what it takes to know when someone is great or not great; moral or immoral. It's not that both things can't be true of a person or a country. It's that if someone does something heinously harmful, it ought to dim the glow of greatness, at least a bit. And the great person or country, when caught committing atrocity, ought to have the decency to be ashamed, to not parade oneself around as "all that and a bag of chips", as some of my U.S. southern friends might say.

I'd say we ought to subtract the immoral acts from the moral ones and see what we have left over. And truly atrocious immoral acts should reduce a boulder of greatness to rubble and stone dust. So, in the final analysis, my relative and my country have done some good things. But when set next to the atrocities, "greatness" isn't the final word to apply to their character or accomplishments, all in all. The same for Hitler and Nazi Germany. The same for my first boyfriend's step-father. Only Hitler might appear to be mostly or entirely evil. The rest of us generally appear to be both good and evil, or not so evil and not so good either. But whiteness, manhood, practiced heterosexuality, and being Christian, when combined as forms of privilege and structural power, tend to function as moral disability, in practice, not theory.

I believe I must make amends for harms I commit, and it is my job to find out what the harm done was. That's not always possible, of course. But when it is possible, I must do what I can to make amends. I have done that in my life. This allows me to live without much remorse. What I have not taken the opportunity to do, even when given it, is hold those who harmed me accountable. I am in contact with one of the men who sexually abused me, for example. I can't tell him what he did to me because if I began to do so he'd exit my life forever, and I want to think that as long as I stay connected to him we might, one day, have that talk. We'll see. I'm not close with him. But nor do I cut him out of my life.

One of the things his abuser did to me was try to teach me how to be a proper boy-child. He saw that I was not masculine in ways he thought boys should be. So he taught me things about how to be a proper boy that made little to no sense to me. It is fortunate for me that none of the women or men who were actually related to me gave much of a damn about any of those ways of being; they let me be me, accepting me as I was. I'm not sure why, actually. I think that's quite unusual. The only answer I have is that my care-givers were all non-traditionally gendered in some ways. The women and the men. So they got that there was nothing so great about being forced to appear to be something one wasn't.

What my country is invested in being is "great" but it is simultaneously invested in committing atrocities. This means my country can never really be great, except in the eyes of adoring fans who refuse to see the whole truth.

I welcome the readers here to see the whole truth of who someone is, and what one's own nation-state does--if one lives in a nation-state, before arriving at any conclusion about whether or not a person or a country is truly, wholly great.

I will tell you that there are a few great people who I admire, and no countries. As I understand their lives, each of the individuals did some harm in their lives, but none of them did systematically atrocious harm; they did things that were deeply troubling to them and they knew what those things were, could name them as harmful, and could realise the importance of making amends. They also did a lot of morally great things. Their names are James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Andrea Dworkin. Each of them is either lesbian or gay. Not one of them is white and Christian and het and male. (There are other people I consider to be morally great, such as Harriet Tubman, Lozen, Sojourner Truth, Wilma Mankiller, and Nelson Mandela, but I don't know as much about their lives as I do the people I've listed as people I admire.)

I've been challenged about using Audre's last name instead of the term "Lord" as in "praise the Lorde" or "Lorde knows". One of the complaints I've gotten is that she wasn't "just good" or "only good" or "all holy" or something along those lines. People tell me this as if I thought she was only or all good and holy. I know full well Audre Lorde was fully human. That's what I admire about her: her humanity. I don't believe Andrea Dworkin or James Baldwin was "only good" or "all holy" either. Such ideas about humans don't resonate with me as plausible or attainable.

Sit down for this: I'm not Christian and don't believe it is humanly possible to be "only holy". And so it is not likely I will view Jesus of Nazareth as something other than "just human". Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, and Andrea Dworkin were at least as human and great as Jesus of Nazareth was described as being. They each accomplished greatness in their lives, although all of them died far too young. Whether or not you Jesus in great regard, you may want to note that according to most people not one of these people was white and Christian: Andrea, Audre, James, or Jesus. This isn't likely because being white and Christian and het and male precludes being great or moral. It is likely that due to such grossly entitled social positioning, one is so out of touch with what most humans experience, that one is left too arrogant and ignorant to be morally great, however. Morally disabled.

So, for me to replace "Lord"--a profoundly patriarchal and /aristocratic/elitist/classist term with "Lorde" is to say that I refuse to grant greatness based solely on gender and other forms of unjust status. Instead, I'll give status to people who saw into humanity and named difficult truths that most refuse to name and challenge.

The next time you hear someone or some country referred to as great, please take full account of what the person or place has done. Do they promote genocide, gynocide, ecocide? Do they work to end racism, rape, and the destruction of the Earth? I wish these questions would be asked of everyone and every thing that dominant societies across the globe hold up as "great" and "moral".

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