- Category: Feminism & Sexuality
- Created on Wednesday, 01 October 2008 10:00
- Written by Ulises Subida
by Ulises Subida Late last week I had a realization in one of my classes. We were dealing with the issue of crimes of omission. The professor gave us a hypothetical:
“A young man falls down the stairs and severely injures himself. His father comes home. Seeing his son bleeding from his head at the bottom of the steps, he walks right by.”
I found this hypothetical amusing, and even chuckled to myself.
In the next moment my professor changed the hypothetical. He went through all the theatre of retelling the drama, but he added a twist. This time instead of the man’s son, it was his wife at the bottom of the stairs. Just as in the first scenario the man walks by in total disregard.
My blood ran cold at this. Not because of the situation described, but because of the sudden muffled laughter of some of the men sitting near me. They hadn’t laughed at the first account, but they did find the second one amusing. Why? I think they found it funny because it was a woman at the bottom of the stairs.
It was a moment the likes of which has crossed my path many times. It was “the club” announcing its existence, confirming a not-so-secret society of male right.
I have been an on-again off-again member of “the club”. In elementary school I was trained, and helped to train, my peers in the logic of male chauvinism and masculinity. It was very important not to be a “faggot”. The only way to avoid ridicule for not being masculine was to join in the ritual harassment of others. When the test came your way, you had to send it back at your inquisitor to ensure that it ended there. Some people never had a chance.
Why did I do it? What do you do when your father ridicules an effeminate man as “a queer” in one moment, and then in the next moment he’s whistling at women out the window of his car? What do you do when the greatest insult on the playground is the accusation of being girlish? You learn.
This is not a story about me
This story is about an insidious social relation that passes from one to another through jokes and taunts creating an atmosphere of casual terror, which is cemented into place because “it’s always been this way”. It’s about how these jokes killed a young woman named Marcella.
Marcella Sali Grace was raped and murdered by an acquaintance. Her body was found abandoned in a cabin in San Jose del Pacifico, in Oaxaca.
A post at Angry White Kid describes what she was like:
"Marcella Sali Grace was born in the United States, with a big heart in solidarity with just causes. She had many friends because she was always inclined to help, using her artistic talents to paint a banner or a wall or doing Arabic dance to raise funds for the struggle, or putting on punk shows, or giving self-defense courses for women because she knew very well how the men accosted them. This was one of her struggles, that women were free and respected. Sali was so involved in the struggle that she was an international accompanier of brothers and sisters who felt harassed by the bad government of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz."
The news of Marcella’s rape and murder shocked me with anger.
I was certain that I knew her, that I recognized her as a person who moved on the periphery of my small circle of friends. The proximity of the murder thrust into my face my own complacency with respect to violence against women.
I’ve known full well about the infamous murders of Juarez for years. Hundreds of women brutalized and murdered spaced out over weeks and months and years. This is the slow grinding under of human beings, so slow that it seems as if it isn't even happening, until it hits near you.
It reminds me of the story of the woman who was gang-raped in a Massachusetts bar as the patrons cheered on. I feel as if I’ve been sitting in that bar watching this happen, and doing nothing, saying nothing.
The bar is our society. It can turn violence against women into a perverse spectacle to be cheered at, for instance in Eli Roth’s fake movie trailer “Thanksgiving." Or it can work from the opposite end imposing a code of silence in the face of social hostility towards women, and enforced by a fear of becoming a target of that hostility. I imagine our world as a place where millions cheer rape and destruction, where thousands secretly laugh to themselves to see a woman violated, and where those who disagree fade into the back of the crowd for fear that otherwise they may be victimized.
And this is where the violence aimed at women becomes more complicated than a simple "he said, she said." Patriarchy doesn’t work because men are natural predators, or because they are naturally inclined towards violence. It works because men have a set of privileges that are defined in relation to the gender line. Just like the playground, men collude to define themselves in opposition to femininity. Disrupting that social bond puts you on the outside of it, and in many cases makes you the target of the same oppression that is aimed at women. Solidarity amongst men, as men, is enforced through the implicit threat of social isolation and even violence. This violence gets played out constantly between men, the sharpest example being the stories of prison rape, the ultimate in emasculation.
That muffled laughter I heard was the echo of this social dynamic. At its extreme edges it is implicated in murder. It is a reflection of the systematic training of many men to approach women as less than human, that is, less than men. As the generally callous response of the Authorities to the murders in Juarez shows, responsibility goes straight to the top of society.
The social relation of patriarchy is not an isolated oppression. It is part of “how things are done” in the normal workings of modern society. It is not simply a question of violence against women, but a question of how a stabilized system of social violence allows for the functioning of society in general. It takes particular expression in the forms of violence aimed at people defined as being on the other side of the line demarcating "us" from "them," but these particular expressions are merely trees in a forest of oppressions.
The line between "us and them" isn’t static. It moves in relation to the needs of social stability, a particular kind of stability, a capitalist stability. The oppressions aimed at specific sections of the people are explicit moments of a larger and more generalized web of violence and threat stabilizing the ground upon which those who rule must stand.
In this sense we can take their “us versus them” and reverse it. But it's not really a matter of “us versus them”, it is a matter of us versus these conditions in which we live, and a realization that if we are to overthrow these conditions and create a world fit to live in, then we must go through “them”, the guarantors of this system.
Just as these oppressions combine to build a sound basis upon which to rule, that rule becomes the concentration of these oppressions. And it is never more concentrated than in the State, the greatest patriarch of them all, and a social fiction designed to mobilize the rule of one section of humanity over the other.
The "custom" of patriarchy in society intertwines with the State’s institutions of social control. An example is in the law where until relatively recently the promiscuity of a woman was an acceptable defense against a charge of rape (it may still be in some places). Another gruesome institution in the law is the existence of a legal excuse for murder when a man is propositioned for homosexual sex. For many crimes, including murder, the requirement of a suitable state of mind on the part of the offender is measured by a “reasonable man” standard. Often times a “reasonable man” in our society believes that a victim is asking for it. In the case of homosexual propositions, the law (in some states) allows murderers to plead down to lower penalties because a “reasonable man” would have been so outraged at such a proposition that he would lose control. This is a reflection of the way in which the State itself is driven by “custom”. These “customs” outline the limits of the State as a tool of reform, or revolution. As a police officer questioned about attempts at reform of rape laws in Michigan said, such reform “mess[es] with the folkways”.
This is the larger scope for the violence that seems to strike us so suddenly. The bottom line is that this costs lives. It nurtures an atmosphere of brutality, and it creates a deep sense of fear about “stepping out of line”. It is part of a society that uses this fear to force people into unhappy and unrewarding lives. It has created a situation where a bar full of people would cheer on a rape, while others in the same bar would watch in silence. It has created a situation where untold numbers of men, women and children are brutalized, murdered, or sold like chattel. This is how a young woman who spent her life defending and serving the people could be murdered in such a senseless manner.
I come back to Marcella to make a point. In the process of writing this article, and investigating more about who Marcella was, it became clear to me that I probably didn’t know her, that she was not the person I thought she was. My anger dissipated. She became just like the faceless women of Juarez to me. And I had to ask, how close does it have to strike before I do something to end it? When your complacency is thrown in your face every time another horror happens, at what point does the shame burn so hot that you can't stand by in silence?
If we hold the institutions that guard these murderous social relations responsible, those that allow these crimes against the people to continue, whether in Oaxaca, Juarez, or the U.S., then at what point do we hold ourselves responsible for failing to sweep such institutions into the past? Taking up the responsibility to end patriarchy requires taking responsibility for a thorough and radical revolution. This goes beyond whatever sacred "ism" we subscribe to. It is a simple practical necessity, if we are to live like human beings.
How much longer can we live this other way?