[CN: non-graphic talk of sexualized violence, talk of racism and the murders of unarmed black men]
Reality has a well–known liberal bias.–Stephen Colbert
I don’t know how to write this piece. It’s intellectually hard and it’s spiritually hard.
I’ve been thinking, lately, about activist tactics, about narrative, about facts.
You see, for the longest time, I thought it was a case of misinformation and missing information. That if I could just tell so-and-so enough stories, enough statistics, it would work. They’d see the error of their ways. They’d drop the casual racism and misogyny. That they just didn’t have the facts. That the truth will win out. That the truth must win out.
But what I’ve realized lately is that there isn’t just one truth. And that’s the problem.
Don’t get me wrong, there is an objective reality. One in which gendered violence and racism and transphobia are real and deadly.
But there are also huge, oppressive systems that are strongly invested in hiding that objective reality. Systems like patriarchy and white supremacy and late-stage capitalism that benefit from the ongoing oppression of Othered bodies. Systems that can only exist through the ongoing disavowal of empathy.
Because, really, isn’t that the path to justice? Not sympathy, not compassion. Empathy. The ability to recognize what another is feeling and feel it yourself. Indeed, the inability to not feel the pain of others. Which is not to say that I can understand what it is to, say, grow up as a racialized person in a racist society. But I can recognize the pain and yearning and I can feel it myself in some small measure. And, more than that, because I recognize that your liberation, my liberation, all of our liberation is tied up in each other’s. To quote Lilla Watson,
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time.But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
But there are these systems that only work so long as we don’t see that our liberations are intimately bound. Indeed, they hide, to the best of their ability, that liberation is even possible. That liberation is even necessary.
The baseline state of capitalism, if you ask Marx, is one of alienation. We are alienated from ourselves, from our work, from each other. And it is this alienation that allows not just our own subjugation, but our complicity in the subjugation of others. Because it takes a certain amount of dissociation and disembodiment to sit in a cubicle all day, ignoring our needs for movement and meaning and stimulation. And it takes that same dissociation and disembodiment to see the suffering of another and shrug, or, worse, join in the oppression of others.
We lose our own humanity through alienation, and we deny the humanity of others. Worse, we selectively grant humanity. That person who looks like me gets it, that other person doesn’t. And thus we wash our hands of the problem of empathy. Of solidarity.
So let’s go back to that idea of multiple truths. Not just the idea, but the problem of multiple truths. You see, my truth is one that recognizes the epidemic of sexualized violence, racist state violence, transphobic violence. So when I hear about a campus rape I don’t wonder what she was wearing, if it was just “sex she regretted the next day” (UGH), if she is making it up for….reasons that have never really been clear to me but reside in the fever dreams of misogynistic assholes. When I hear about a white police officer killing an unarmed black man I don’t twist myself in contortions to legitimate it, I don’t look to the domestic violence history of a dead 12 year old boys’s father to validate the murder of a child. Because these facts (and they are facts) fit into the world as I understand it.
But for those who are heavily invested in upholding the patriarchy and white supremacy, these events are aberrations if they are accepted as facts at all. You see, if you are invested in the idea that rape doesn’t happen that often and that when it does the woman was asking for it, that 1 in 3 or 6* statistic doesn’t square with your reality. And because our brains are funny things, most people will decide that the statistic must be wrong rather than that their worldview is. And if you’re a white person who has only ever experienced police officers as friendly and safe, then thousands of (mostly) people of colour rising up and protesting the ongoing racist targeting and murder of black bodies flies in the face of what you know to be the truth. And it’s a lot easier to disavow the actions of people who don’t look like you than it is to completely re-evaluate everything you know to be true about the world.
So I don’t think that we can rely on the use of statistics and facts to change the world. Because they are discounted by people whose truths don’t allow for them.
On the small scale** I think we need to focus on empathy. We need to not just insist on our own and each other’s humanity, we need to find that point in others where they can experience empathy. I can remember a conversation with my brother several years ago, where he was talking about a negative and scary experience where a large man was hitting on him, touching him, and making very graphic sexual comments to him in a situation he couldn’t easily leave. I told him that I had experienced that more times than I could count. And that working in any kind of food-service job as a woman meant multiple versions of that every week. He was visibly shaken and said something to the effect that he never realized it was that bad. He’d heard stories but didn’t know it was that bad.
When we live in a culture that so thoroughly dissuades empathy we need to seek it out and set the stage for it.
*A word on that statistic. We don’t actually know how prevalent violence is for reasons that make a lot of sense (low reporting rates, a culture which downplays violence and can cause people to spend years explaining abuse away as “a weird thing that happened”). RAINN says 1 in 6 American women will experience sexualized violence in her lifetime. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimates 1 in 4 Canadian women will experience sexualized violence or domestic violence in her lifetime. The Violence Against Women Survey conducted by Statistics Canada in 1993 found that 1 in 3 women respondents reported experiencing sexualized violence at some point in their lives and 1 in 2 women had experienced sexualized or domestic violence. While we know that violence rates have decreased in Canada since then, that survey has never been repeated so we don’t actually have a reliable number. But if we go with 1 in 4 women will experience some form of sexual/intimate violence, that is still outrageously high.
**Large scale I think we need civil disobedience and to remember that no holders of power have ever granted rights out of the goodness of their hearts, or because they were mildly inconvenienced.