The Ethics of Looking

There is yet another piece of leaked media making the Internet rounds and causing all sorts of emotional upheaval and outrage. This time, it’s the video footage of then-Baltimore ravens player Ray Rice beating his then-fiancee unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator. Mainstream news outlets have — with breathless, parasitic glee — been showing and amplifying said video under the umbrella of its “necessity” for reporting the news. (Or raising awareness, or truth-telling, or whatever sort of claptrap bullshit justification serves as today’s flavor.)

Which means I am back to thinking about the ethics of what we choose to watch.

Continue reading “The Ethics of Looking”

Letting the Genie Out of the Bottle

Some days I think I’m such a bad feminist that someone’s going to knock on the door and ask me to turn in my membership card.*

nailpolish_by_rainbow_colourToday is definitely one of those days, because I am rather out of step with the wave of outrage against the new roofie-detecting nail polish that’s been all over the news.

Before I prove all the ways I am limited as a feminist, I do want to acknowledge the ways that I share many of the concerns I’ve seen expressed in the media blitz about “Undercover Colors.” ThinkProgress quotes Tracey Vitchers of Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER): “I think we need to think critically about why we keep placing the responsibility for preventing sexual assault on young women.” Damn straight. Some day soon I might just tell the story about the time I nearly lost my shit at Elizabeth Vargas and tried to take exactly that ideological stand (alas, in a woefully inarticulate, limited, and ultimately ineffective, way).

The ThinkProgress article goes on to talk about the kinds of efforts they (and their interviewees) would recommend be publicly highlighted:

So, rather than targeting efforts at helping women identify roofies in their drinks, it would likely be more effective to focus on larger efforts to tackle the cultural assumptions at the root of the campus sexual assault crisis, like the idea that it’s okay to take advantage of people when they’re drunk. There’s a lot of student-led activism on college campuses around these themes, as well as some college administrations agreeing to implement more comprehensive consent education and bystander intervention training programs. The advocates who spoke to ThinkProgress said they wish more of those campaigns would start making headlines.

Again, I’m in agreement. I even think Jessica Valenti of The Guardian (or her editors) pretty much hit the nail on the head when she/they titled her article on this topic: Why is it easier to invent anti-rape nail polish than to find a way to stop rapists?

So I agree that there are huge problematics with rape culture — the victim-blaming, the way women are expected to carry the responsibility for “rape prevention,” the way those two things fuel a world in which women’s freedoms are endlessly constrained. And I think the media firestorm around this “life-saving nail polish”** is hugely symptomatic of rape culture, and adds to the ongoing perpetuation of same.

And yet. (Here’s where I’m about to lose my feminist credentials.)***

I don’t really have that much of a problem with the product itself. Because when I think about the primary objections I’ve seen voiced against the product as its own thing, they don’t entirely ring true for my understanding of the world.

1. This product will create more victim-blaming. Is that even possible? When I look around me, it seems like victim-blaming is already up to 11. Yeah, I’m sure that this nail polish will be added as a new flavor to the victim-blaming soup but it doesn’t sense to me like it would actually, objectively increase the quantity of victim-blaming or the likelihood that victim-blaming will occur. ‘Cos, as far as I can tell, the unfortunate truth is that you’ll be blamed for whatever you do or don’t do — if you didn’t wear this nail polish, you’ll be blamed for that, but if you were to wear it, you’d still be blamed just as strongly, only for some other bullshit excuse.

2. It’s wrong for a team of college men to be profiting (or trying to profit) off a crime predominantly commuted against women. I’m not really loving the fact that the R&D team for this is all guys. Still, this line of reasoning feels uncomfortably reductive to me: casting all men into the mold of sexual predator — which is similarly problematic to the societal mythology that casts all women into the mold of sexual object.

Besides, the company founders are hitting a lot of good notes in their public statements. From the Facebook page:

We are taking just one angle among many to combat this problem. Organizations across the country need your support in raising awareness, fundraising, and education. Among the ones we recommend are:

RAINN
Men Can Stop Rape
InterAct (locally in Raleigh)

Please consider following these campaigns and finding new ways to fight this crime in your communities around the world.

And, yes, it’s possible these words are insincere and manipulative. It’s also possible they’re completely sincere, and I want to give these guys the benefit of the doubt until I see more definitive evidence that they’re being unethically opportunistic.

3. This product will create a false sense of security (in this big unsafe predator-filled world), and also at the same time Women shouldn’t have to police their behavior or work so hard to protect themselves (the world should be a safer place). I’ve grouped these last two together, because I’ve been so deeply fascinated by the ways they’re often invoked together despite their contradictory undertones.

Part of the “false sense of security” narrative is based in the statistical reality that only about 2.4% of  campus rapes are suspected to be linked to roofies or other such substances. As such, someone electing to use that product may feel like they’re protecting themselves from danger when in actuality they might have made themselves less aware and more careless about all the real dangers that are out there in the world.

[SIDEBAR] I am very curious to see if that statistical fact — only 2.4% of sexual assaults involve roofies — is the thing that finally tanks the business model for Undercover Colors. I’m not convinced there’s that much of a market here. But I still don’t think it’s wrong for anyone to be exploring that question. It’s the circle of product development: prototype something to see if it can be created, then do further market research to see if there’s enough of a desire for that newly-created thing to warrant further development and scaling up. [/SIDEBAR]

And, somehow, simultaneous with the reasoning that this product is a Bad Thing because it won’t guard against the real dangers out there, stands also the reasoning that it is a Bad Thing because it’s not fair that women need to put in the extra effort to negotiate an unsafe world. Which brings me back to Valenti:

As former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir said after a cabinet member suggested that women be given a curfew to curb a spate of sexual assaults: “But it’s the men who are attacking the women. If there’s to be a curfew, let the men stay home, not the women.”

And to ThinkProgress, quoting Rebecca Nagle, co-director of the activist group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture:

“The problem isn’t that women don’t know when there are roofies in their drink; the problem is people putting roofies in their drink in the first place.”

And, quite honestly, this brings me back to a place of partial agreement. Because, yes, I believe — I know — that the ultimate necessity here is to dismantle rape culture, to stop rapists from raping, all of that. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the patriarchy needs to die in a fire, like now.

Except “like now” isn’t really how it’s gonna go. Cultural transformation takes time, and until we’re on the other side of that transition, I can’t help but have empathy and compassion for anyone choosing to use whatever techniques they choose to feel a little bit safer and (in a statistical “playing the odds” kind of way) maybe even to be a little bit safer.

And yes, it sucks that those sorts of calculations can so strongly restrict women’s freedom. And we should live in a world where freedoms aren’t restricted like that. But we’re not there yet.

I kept an army knife in my bedroom for a number of years in Philly. Would it have been potentially useful if I’d been attacked? Perhaps. Was it a foolproof method of self-defense? No way. Would I have been “to blame” for being attacked if that knife wasn’t effective self-defense? No fucking way. Was it symptomatic of our fucked-up rape culture that I felt the need to have this knife? Absolutely. Was it an expression of personal weakness that I wanted that object to help me feel/be safer? I’m betting yes.

Do I blame myself, current and past, for making that adaptive choice to help myself get through the days, and to achieve some level of freedom from hyper-vigilant insomnia during the nights? Not on your life.

And as with my old army knife, so with someone else’s chemically reactive nail polish.

* I’m not giving back my free toaster, though…

** Don’t you just love marketing hyperbole?!?

*** Though, hey! I’m still thinking through all these different threads of meaning and feeling. It’s possible I’m onto some level of personal truth. It’s possible I’m talking out of my ass. I’ma just keeping on writing and watching, and I’ll see if I refine this line of thinking or if my ongoing study leads me to a different place, when all is said and done.

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Image credit: “nailpolish” by rainbow-colour, shareable via a Creative Commons License (retrieved from http://rainbow-colour.deviantart.com/art/nailpolish-73597318 )

A Little of that Human Touch

Ain’t no mercy on the streets of this town
Ain’t no bread from heavenly skies
Ain’t nobody drawin’ wine from this blood
It’s just you and me tonight

Tell me in a world without pity
Do you think what I’m askin’s too much ?
I just want something to hold on to
And a little of that human touch
Just a little of that human touch

~ Bruce Springsteen, Human Touch

While I’ve been under the weather* having a very individual-sort of challenging week, the rest of the country has been having its own sort of shitty week, what with the floods and the plagues and human decency going all to shit in Ferguson Missouri.

Because I’m still a bit ailing, I’m going to make this more of a link-fest than a work of original commentary — for the most part. Here’s a basic timeline that takes events up to President Obama’s statement Thursday afternoon.

And now a few scattered threads of what’s caught my attention since.

First, some basic pointers from Kate Harding on understanding these events from a lens of racial-cultural privilege.

2. Recognize that Michael Brown’s death was not an isolated incident.

In 2012, more than 300 black people were executed by police, security guards, or vigilantes. In the last month, three other unarmed African-American men—Eric Garner in New York, John Crawford III in Beavercreek, Ohio, and Ezell Ford in Los Angeles—have been killed by police. Those are the ones we know about.

3. Stop saying “This can’t be happening in America.”

I understand the impulse, I really do. But that impulse only comes to those who are insulated and isolated from how America treats poor people and people of color every day. Langston Hughes wrote “America never was America to me” in 1935. If you didn’t quite understand that poem in your junior high or high-school lit classes, read it again, while you think about what’s happening in Ferguson. Let it sink in.

Then, two articles pondering the, um, “selective” ways that many mainstream media outlets choose to portray black victims of violent crime: one from NPR and one from HuffPo. The HuffPo piece particularly illustrates the discomfiting tension that exists between the portrayal of black victims of crime as compared to white (alleged) perpetrators of crimes. Yes, Virginia, race privilege is so fucked up that white criminals still get treated better than black crime victims:

This is by no means standard media protocol, but it happens frequently, deliberately or not. News reports often headline claims from police or other officials that appear unsympathetic or dismissive of black victims. Other times, the headlines seem to suggest that black victims are to blame for their own deaths, engaging in what critics sometimes allege is a form of character assassination. When contrasted with media portrayal of white suspects and accused murderers, the differences are more striking. News outlets often choose to run headlines that exhibit an air of disbelief at an alleged white killer’s supposed actions. Sometimes, they appear to go out of their way to boost the suspect’s character, carrying quotes from relatives or acquaintances that often paint even alleged murderers in a positive light.

Amidst the outrage and indignation over Mike Brown’s death, Feministing calls attention to an equally discomfiting tension — one around the way that black male victims of crime receive more media attention, public support, societal outrage/sympathy than do black female crime victims.

How are the deaths and beatings of women — cis and trans — at the hands of the police or with their complicity so much less compelling? I think the obvious answer here is misogyny and transmisogyny, not on one specific occasion or by one specific person, but at the systemic level: what tweets get tweeted and retweeted, what events seem newsworthy, and what bodies are deemed to hold value.

I want to mourn the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, and I want to question why the deaths of Renisha McBride and Islan Nettles and Kathryn Johnston haven’t gotten similar traction. Why the beating of Marlene Pinnock isn’t on all of our lips. Why the nation is not familiar with the names of Stephanie Maldonado, or of Ersula Ore. And how many women’s names do we not know because they don’t dare come forward? Because the violence they experience at the hands of the police is sexual, and the shame and stigma around sexual violence silences them?

The truth is that, in the predominantly male-led civil rights organizations who lead efforts to respond to police brutality, in the male-dominated media that covers them, and in the hearts and minds of many people in this country, women who are of color, who are sex workers, undocumented immigrants, transgender (or, god forbid, more than one of those at once) are rarely candidates for “innocence,” and are often blamed for their own deaths, forgotten, or hardly counted at all.

But finally, the piece that gives me small glimmer of hope is the contrast between Wednesday’s protest — and the militarized police response to them (text and images from Slate), and last night.

The man at the front of the march, was Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, a Ferguson native.

“I’m not afraid to be in this crowd,” Johnson declared to reporters.

Johnson, a towering African American man who wiped sweat from his brow as he pointed out neighborhood hangouts and restaurants he used to frequent, was put in charge of crowd control earlier in the day, replacing the St. Louis County police who had been overseeing the police response to the protests. . . .

Protesters said they were still angry, demanding justice for Brown and answers from local police about why he was shot and who the offending officer was.

But, they said, Johnson’s willingness to physically interact with them, rid the streets of heavy police equipment, and help them coordinate protests was a welcome change in tone.

“Thank you so much for being here,” said Karen Wood, who fought back tears as she held both of Johnson’s hands imploring him to bring answers to residents and maintain calm in the streets.

“This is about human rights, about human beings,” she cried. (Washington Post)

It’s about human rights. Human beings. Meeting one another in an open-hearted way, with that human touch.

ari-hug-it-outAnd no, it’s not a magic wand to make all the troubles and tensions magically go away. There’s still hard work to be done, hard conversations to be had.

But ain’t it something to see how that human touch at least makes the hard work possible?

* It’s been a lovely stomach bug/depression cocktail — I don’t recommend it.

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Image credit: http://giphy.com/gifs/pzl20V6IWOjK