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.
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.