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Apr 05

A spoonful of sugar

TW for the quote below which contains a fictional account of the rape of a child.

“She made them all close their eyes and listen to her. She told them to pretend that little girl had blond hair and blue eyes, that the two rapists were black,  that they tied her right foot to a tree and her left foot to a fence post, that they raped her repeatedly and cussed because she was white. She told them to picture that girl layin’ there beggin’ for her daddy while they kicked her in the mouth and knocked out her teeth, broke both jaws, broke he nose. She said to imagine two drunk blacks pouring beer on her and pissing in her face, and laughing like idiots. She then she told them to imagine that little girl belonged to them– their daughter. She told them to be honest with themselves and write on a piece of paper if whether or not they would kill those black bastards if they got the chance. And they voted by secret ballot. All twelve said they would do the killing. The foreman counted the votes. Twelve to zero.”-A Time to Kill by John Grisham

There is this thing we tend to do as social creatures fighting for causes. We find examples and hold them up in the light so everyone can see the moral wrongness being imposed on various groups in societies.  We see those examples as role models. If the wrongs are severe enough they become our martyrs. They become the rallying point around which we affect change in the world.

Our opponents will scrutinize them. They will find every flaw possible and try to tear our martyr to shreds. And we will try to shine the most “positive” light possible upon them. Consider the Sandra Fluke incident. I spoke once how she laid bare her own versions of martyrs for women’s rights to access birth control. I spoke how she sacrifices the sluts for the immediate win. Then she herself gets deemed a “slut” and much of the world does the same thing Fluke did. They grab their martyr and say “look how normal innocent she is.”

This is not uncommon. Happens in just about every movement. It is dangerous, however.

I will say my thesis loud this time: When we normalize martyrs and role models we end up with a bunch of short-term victories that only delay real change.

I can’t imagine our tendency to normalize will go away anytime soon. It is something we do because we are social creatures evolved to group things into categories, often into in-group and out-group categories. I would like to make people think about this tendency so that maybe next time they won’t be so quick to accentuate the normalcy of their role models to the detriment of all the other “so very human” members of their movement.

Let’s look at examples:

I started with Sandra Fluke. I am going to lay out her story in a bit more detail. When she fights for birth control access, she completely ignores the root cause of why the religious right doesn’t want women to have reproductive freedom. See, the root cause, the big idea, the entire fucking point, is that the religious right (made up of patriarchy defenders) consider women to be subjugates who should not (as ordained by god) enjoy and/or have sex unless for the purpose of generating the patriarch’s offspring. So when Fluke defends her friends’ rights to medically necessary medication, she perpetuates the normalizing ideal that women shouldn’t have or even want to have sex for fun. She says “Ignore the sluts behind the curtain. Look at these pretty little specimens I offer you.”

Now I won’t say that Fluke’s  own choice to normalize the examples presented before the panel is a causal factor in Limbaugh’s choice to demonize her as a “slut.” First Limbaugh doesn’t think about social complexities to that degree (or any degree perhaps) and second, Limbaugh’s overall assholiness is typically explanation enough. I will say that there is a deeper underlying cause though. Something far less direct but still a perpetuating force in the whole “calling Fluke a slut” kerfuffle.  Would Limbaugh call Fluke a slut if being a slut was considered socially normal? I think not. Would Limbaugh have called Fluke a slut if being a slut was considered socially good? Absolutely not. There is no benefit to using slut as a pejorative if the word has no bearing in culture as a pejorative.

So all these years fighting for women’s rights in a plethora of spheres, we still haven’t even scratched the surface in showing that sex for fun is normal for women too. We haven’t scratched the surface because almost every time we hold up a role model for scrutiny in the fight against sexism, we oh-so-conveniently discuss her purity, her untarnished résumé as why the opposition is wrong.

It gets more dangerous. Consider the effect that allowing “slut” to remain a pejorative has.  Consider the purpose of Slut Walks. How often is a woman’s purity a question in the case of rape? Every single fucking time. And it wouldn’t be if those fighting sexism had been fighting for women’s rights to fuck indiscriminately this whole time. It wouldn’t be if all the women fighting for their own cause, refused to distance themselves from sluts and instead embraced sluthood as normal and right.

Instead we continue to normalize female purity, and demonize female promiscuity.

Next example:

I haven’t blogged about Trayvon Martin. Other people have done a far better job discussing the case and the racism that still permeates our culture. I am going to discuss it now. When media attention caught onto the Martin case, the first step was to normalize Martin. “He was a straight A student.” Because failing students deserve to be murdered. “He had never been to jail.” Because every one who has been to jail deserves to be murdered.

The backlash was similar to that of Fluke”s. Defenders of race privilege in the world found every possible way to demonize Martin. Victim blaming in full force. He deserved to get shot because black men in hoodies are scary. He deserved to get shot because he had marijuana in his pocket once.

He deserved to get shot because he wasn’t as normal innocent as black people are supposed to be to not be murdered.

The long-term normalization of role models and martyrs for causes in fighting race discrimination, had done little to fight racism for actual normal victims. We still think that if you don’t “shuffle your feet” enough then you are to blame for your own death.

Trayvon Martin’s murder is a horrible consequence of this own sort of normalizing, but if that isn’t enough, consider the recent murder and coverup by police of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. or the long list of victims on Crommunist’s blog.

Yet one more example:

This is the case of an extremely normative member of a particular movement versus the  rest of the members of the same movement.

In Canada, two forces in the fight for transgender recognition and rights, fought simultaneously for positive cisgender media attention. The first was Canadian Trans Rights Bill C-279 which would place gender identity and expression under the rightful protection of the Canadian Human Rights Act. The second was the disqualification of pageant contestant, Jenna Talackova, from the Miss Universe Canada beauty pageant.

Both events sparked petitions. Both events begged for attention. Both deserved attention but clearly one deserved attention more. The wrong one got the most attention. As of this writing, The Canadian Trans Rights Bill C-279 has 1,817 signatures. The Jenna Talackova petition has 42, 123.

Cisgender people (and transgender people as well) came out in droves to fight for the right of one trans person to be a role model for trans rights but refused to fight the larger battle for the actual rights of trans people in general. The blanket acceptance of trans people to have the day-to-day rights that cis people enjoy with impunity (like using the restroom or flying on a plane) lost out to the right of one trans person to do exactly one thing.

This is not to say that Jenna Talackova didn’t deserve the right to do that thing. She absolutely did. The thing is though, if this bill were to pass, all the future Jenna Talackova’s wouldn’t have to worry about being disqualified. They would be protected from the discrimination that disqualified her in the first place.

Privileged people of all sorts don’t want that though. Privileged people of all sorts are being taught they only have to swallow the uneasy medicine of tolerance if we coat it in sugar first.

And it only delays teaching them to swallow like adults.

The horrible consequence that this delay can have? Consider the rights of a young, trans girl in Germany. Alexis Kaminsky isn’t a cis normative knockout like Jenna Talackova. She is too young to narrow in those terms. Instead she is a girl, born with male genitals, who wants to preserve the option to transition with relative ease in later life. Alexis Kaminsky wants Lupron and currently authorities have deemed that she cannot have it. Authorities have deemed that she doesn’t fit into their frame of reference for what is “normal” and she therefore must be corrected to fit into that frame of reference. Because she must pay for the crime of being “not normal,” authorities want to force her to undergo ineffective and possibly damaging psychiatric  treatment while her body is forced to continue to develop in a gender that she is not. Because she must pay for the crime of being “not normal,” she might now pay for the crime of not even “passing for normal.” They have put her life in jeopardy because the possibility that a trans girl might pass for a cis girl and live in congruence with her body is too bitter a medicine for them to swallow yet.


I am going to discuss the quote at the beginning of this post.  Many people have probably heard something similar in the movie version of  A Time to Kill. I chose the book version for a particular reason, and it isn’t because it makes a better sound bite. In the book by John Grisham, the lawyer Jake Brigance is not the one that makes this point to the jury. Instead, it is voiced by a juror to the rest of the jury during deliberation. Now the point made in this quote would have been well sold as a closing argument (as it was in the film adaptation), but it would have been a huge shift in Brigance’s character to do so. Grisham writes the character of Jake Brigance as a one who stubbornly refuses to make the case about race. It is a stubbornness that I absolutely love to watch play out in Brigance. From the outset he views the vigilante justice enacted by a father protecting his daughter to be the lawful, right thing to do. Race in this circumstance is a context that doesn’t matter to Brigance and he refuses to let it matter despite how much every one else tells him it does.

And in all his stubbornness, Jake Brigance is wrong.

Because all these years we have normalized our martyrs. We have coated them in sugar and flavored them in just the right way, ignoring the fact that the medicine isn’t actually bitter. We have decided the easiest best way to demonize intolerance is to offer up the most “normal” members of oppressed groups up for scrutiny rather than demonizing the excessive scrutiny itself.

And it will continue to be this way if we don’t start telling the world:

Promiscuous women* don’t deserve to be raped.

Black people who don’t “shuffle their feet”* don’t deserve to be killed.

Trans children* don’t deserve to be forced into living in fear of cis on trans violence as adults.

*I won’t use the pejoratives here because I do not own them to rightfully use them. I want sexist/racist/transphobic people to know though that no matter how pejoratively you use the terms in order to demonize your victim before you victimize them, they are still the victim and you are the horrible monster.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    Anders

    You may have convinced me. I will have to think about this.

  2. 2
    Anna

    I do understand the line of thinking disadvantaged groups go through with the martyr/role model arguments. It’s like making flavored cough syrup for children, it goes down easier and its easier to get them to take it. Problem with this is the child never learns that they need to take medicine even if they don’t like. They never learn to think about WHY they are taking it.

    I think holding up role models actually slows down progress for the disadvantaged. In the case of the beauty contestant she was allowed back in and all was right with the world. The powers that be can now ignore it again. NO fundamental substantive change was made. However even though it may have been harder to pass the trans rights bill it would have been genuine substantive change. More importantly, to have full rights, it will need to be passed someday, better to start working on it now then fighting for a successive line of beauty queens and palatable trans folk and then taking on the major issues later. It just seems like wasted effort.

    This strategy has another consequence. For those of us who dont fit the “ideal” image of what the powers that be want in out communities we are again made invisible and invalidated by our own community. It makes us feel like we don’t count well they fight for the normative ones. It’s a way of being victimized by our own community as we are stuck thinking “what about us?’

    1. 2.1
      WilloNyx

      For me that is what I consider the biggest consequence. When it causes those within a movement to turn their criticism against the less “desirable” less “easy to defend” members of their movement.

      It makes me thing about the confrontationalist/accommodationist divide int eh atheist movement. Accomodationists are the easy ones to defend and we all work on defending their right to be atheist. But when it comes down to it many accommodationists will not defend the same freedoms that confrontationalists deserve as well. They will say you brought this upon yourself by being “too confrontational” by “not playing by societies rules” and therefore you aren’t defended by the 1st amendment like I am.

      That dynamic plays out in every movement. Much like the HBSers mentioned by Natalie Reed. It is a “who can we sacrifice so that I am looked upon favorably” rat race toward inclusion. I can’t make it stop but I hope I can make people think twice before they throw their allies/associates under a bus. I hope I can make people realize they might be hurting themselves in the long run because no matter how pure we see ourselves, we all have skeletons that may be considered “bitter” by the opposition.

      I mean who would have thought a “hoodie” was bitter medicine? It isn’t. We have made it bitter. Just like we have made short skirts and non-passing transgender people “bitter” medicine. We taught them they only have to take the medicine if it conforms to their standards first.

      I am standing up and saying that is not who I want to be nor how I think the ultimate battle will be won. When I defend the first amendment, I defend those I hate’s right to use it. When I defend race, I will defend a black persons right to be a “nigger who looks like a drug dealing thug”* without it being a bad thing, I will defend a person from India’s rights to be a “dot head who works in a gas station”* without it being a bad thing. When I defend gender/sex, I will defend a woman’s rights to act like a “bitch”* or dress/fuck like a “slut”* without it being a bad thing. When I defend a transgender person, I will defend them whether they look like “a chick with a dick”* or like Miss Universe contestant above without either one being bad things. I will defend a gay person’s rights to be a “fairy”* or a “dyke”* without it being a bad thing.

      I will defend people because
      being a “nigger who looks like a drug dealing thug” is not wrong
      being a “dot head who works in a gas station” is not wrong
      being a “bitch” or a “slut” is not wrong
      being a “chick with a dick” is not wrong

      I will not hold these stereotypes up as being undesirable because they are not undesirable. They are perfectly normal human things to be.

      *It makes me really uncomfortable to type these kinds of pejoratives because I know that they may hurt the feelings of my readers who may have been harmed by them in the past. But I do wish that they know my intention is to use them in a way that will aid their own reclamation of the terms. I do not mean to cause harm with my use. Please inform me if my intention is not clear enough.

  3. 3
    Jason

    This is kind of tangential but I feel like the motives you’re ascribing to the other side in many of these situations are gross generalizations asserted without proof. You tear down the relevancy of certain ideas and then provide mental motivations to back up that assertion but I don’t know how representative those contextualizing motivations actually are of “the other side.”

    In particular you make the claim that the grades that Trayvon received in school were presented because some people thought “those who do poorly in school deserve to die.” I think you’re being rather cynical and presumptuous here. I am sure someone on the other side would tell you that they are relevant because they’re part of establishing Treyvon’s character which is important because of the ambiguity of the case. The assumption is that a straight A student is much less likely to have exhibited any behavior that qualifies Zimmerman’s actions. The same goes for the other details tossed around. They have nothing to do with what he “deserved.” It’s about establishing his character.

    Even in the Sandra Fluke case you can see some of the attributes that you call normalizing ascribed to her as relevant. If she merely wanted to have lots of sex and that was why she wants a government birth control mandate to exist then that comes off as wanting economic support from society so that she can afford to pursue personal gratification. It isn’t that everyone thinks the pursuit of that is wrong — many people just don’t think that government should require businesses to pay for it by law. In the eyes of those who are opposed to Sandra’s request it was similar to a man asking for subsidized Xbox controllers while they’re college. A sex-negative attitude doesn’t have to be the lynchpin of disapproval here.

    Are there some people who do possess the more dire attitudes you ascribed to the “other side” in your post? I would say so. But ascribing the worst possible motivations to the behavior of the other side is extremely counterproductive on the whole (and also grossly unfair). It’s like how pro-choice people often declare that those who are anti-abortion are all about controlling women. That requires the dismissal of the fact that for many pro-life people their stance is a misguided (and extremely ill informed) attempt at protecting life.

    It’s easier to beat up a straw man than it is to deal with good intentions gone awry. I get that. But imagine how much easier it would be to show people that their good intent is being used against them as opposed to destroying a fundamental value that they hold. The latter is not really something progressives are ever going to be able to do on an individual basis. Human beings cling to ideology too strongly.

    Just as you’re concerned about how in-group out-group thinking affects the normalization of martyrs I am concerned about how it effects our views of the other side. I think being unfair to those who disagree with us is the other side of the coin.

    1. 3.1
      WilloNyx

      In particular you make the claim that the grades that Trayvon received in school were presented because some people thought “those who do poorly in school deserve to die.” I think you’re being rather cynical and presumptuous here

      I am being cynical, and presuming that the continued mention of character in this situation is unnecessary in the way “what was she wearing” is unnecessary. There is no aspect of grades that changes the facts of the case. If he was a failing student who regularly smoked pot it wouldn’t make the scenario in which Zimmerman shot an unarmed man after following/stalking him ok. I don’t care if Trayvon Martin deals crack in his spare time. He was not a threat to George Zimmerman at the time and does not deserve to be murdered. If you think that Trayvon’s character (especially all the way down to grades he made) is useful in releasing some of the ambiguity then I feel like you may have bought into the normalizing rhetoric a too much. Yes there are some aspects of Trayvon’s character that might be important. Was Trayvon a violent person? That might me one aspect of his character that would have bearing on the case.

      Think about it like this. The things we heard about Zimmerman’s character were mostly extremely relevant (i.e. the number of calls he made to police in the past). No one spoke about his grades as to why he might not have shot any one so why did they speak about Martin’s grades as a reason he wasn’t confronting Zimmerman?

      Not I am not saying that those who held him up as a martyr did not have good intentions. I absolutely think they had good intentions. I just think they are misguided. I want people to defend not just the “nice” black people like Trayvon Martin from being victims but also the very human ones as well. I don’t think we can make a real dent in racism until we start defending the not so easy to defend.

      Even in the Sandra Fluke case you can see some of the attributes that you call normalizing ascribed to her as relevant. If she merely wanted to have lots of sex and that was why she wants a government birth control mandate to exist then that comes off as wanting economic support from society so that she can afford to pursue personal gratification. It isn’t that everyone thinks the pursuit of that is wrong — many people just don’t think that government should require businesses to pay for it by law. In the eyes of those who are opposed to Sandra’s request it was similar to a man asking for subsidized Xbox controllers while they’re college. A sex-negative attitude doesn’t have to be the lynchpin of disapproval here.

      I am sorry but it is absolutely a result of people considering babies a consequence of sex and a consequence that is rightfully imposed on women. It is completely rooted in the sexist belief that sex for fun is not what women do or should do. It is not cost effective. Pregnancies are more expensive than birth control and are covered by all insurance companies. It is meant to subjugate women. Trying to make it about money ignores when they do something even more obvious like Arizona’s law penalizing women for using birth control for non medical reasons.

      Are there some people who do possess the more dire attitudes you ascribed to the “other side” in your post? I would say so. But ascribing the worst possible motivations to the behavior of the other side is extremely counterproductive on the whole (and also grossly unfair). It’s like how pro-choice people often declare that those who are anti-abortion are all about controlling women. That requires the dismissal of the fact that for many pro-life people their stance is a misguided (and extremely ill informed) attempt at protecting life.

      This isn’t about the individual people but about a tendency and the effect it has on attitudes over all. I have been in the past a part of the tendency toward normalizing martyrs and my intentions were always the best ones. I still think it was wrong and sacrifices the whole fight for the immediate win, the easy win.

      It’s easier to beat up a straw man than it is to deal with good intentions gone awry. I get that. But imagine how much easier it would be to show people that their good intent is being used against them as opposed to destroying a fundamental value that they hold.

      I am not sure what straw man you think I am beating up here. You admitted our tendency to normalize. I am fighting our tendency to normalize by trying to show the effect it can and does have on the overall goals. Even if you consider it a “straweffect” (i.e. slippery slope argument) it doesn’t mean I am beating up a straw man. The tenancy to normalize is pervasive, I would almost say universal. I am attempting to make people more cognizant about how it can affect the attitudes they are trying to change. I am trying to “deal with good intentions gone awry.”

      I think being unfair to those who disagree with us is the other side of the coin.

      Please tell me how I am being unfair to anyone by suggesting that their “good intentions” are paving a trip through hell before we reach our end goal?

      I think I have addressed all of your points.

      1. Jason

        You addressed all of my points quite well (which were only tangential to what you were saying). I always thought the main thrust of your article was insightful, and I wasn’t intending to detract from that, I just thought some of your examples were a bit biased and unfair.

        We can quibble over small details regarding that, but we agree on 99% of stuff, and I have to say your argument against normalizing is very persuasive (and not something I disagreed with at all).

        Anyway, thanks for the detailed, and meticulous response.

    2. 3.2
      NissaDore

      If only they gave out large cash rewards for missing the fucking point. I especially love the way you tried to trot out an analogy of men recieving xbox controllers instead of using a more fitting analogy, say getting prescriptions for their erections covered by insurance so they can “persue personal gratification.” Oh yeah, that one might have backfired on you. The fact is that access to health coverage is unequal between men and women and a large part of that inequality comes in the form of women being denied the same types of coverage as men or being charged sometimes twice as much for the same coverage. You also made some classic errors in your response that tells me you haven’t really made an effort to understand the problem at all.

      Women are not asking society to pay for their coverage. We simply want the option to exist. Society isn’t paying for the pills that keep your little erection up. You are. Most people pay for their insurance. In those jobs where their employer pays, it is part of their compensation and the same argument we have to make over and over again about equal compensation comes into play.

      Willo has done a more than adequate job responding to you on this but I felt compelled. She used an obvious rhetorical device when she talked about people “deserving to die” and you insisted on focusing on your objections to a literal interpretation of that device instead of focusing on the point of her post. Then you have the nerve to accuse her of a straw man argument. Way to shine Jason.

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