Dignity and Indignation

(White House website)

Commencement, the old idea that the end is not the end but a new beginning, delivers pomp and circumstance (the actual song and the ceremony), folding chairs, speakers’ platforms, honorary degrees, family lunches, sweaty black robes, grandparents seeking refuge from humidity, diplomas and brief swaggers on stage, caps tossed in the air, reminiscence, recognition, encouragement, celebration.   In a way, this ritual is a collective Bar or Bat Mitzvah in its excited anticipation of the people these youngsters have become and the older adults they will be.  Commencement is excitement, hope, and love.

This year I will attend our university’s baccalaureate service, a special ceremony for some of the seniors, the formal graduation, my daughter’s 8th-grade graduation, and the high-school graduation of dear friends.  That is a lot of commencing packed into three short days, and I’m looking forward to it, in no small part because I am so happy for these people and glad for their next adventures.  When I was younger, I thought rituals rather silly; the predictable garb, incantations, and seasonal speeches seemed to pale in comparison to simply being with the people you loved and wanted to celebrate.  My brother-in-law once reminded me that people need rituals in order to acknowledge beginnings and endings, to come together as a community, to observe the different ways in which time passes.  He is right.  These rituals allow us to tell each other of the respect we feel for one another.  They underscore human dignity and, when done right, also nudge us towards indignation in the face of injustice.  Simply put, injustice erases human dignity; it tells us that some humans are more worthy than others.  Commencement should remind us that we have learned otherwise.

While the United States continues to allow, and too often to condone, the killing of black people, the country also sees the smaller indignities, or reductions of worthiness, in the acts of white people calling the police on black people and the police responding to these racist and frivolous calls.  These daily indignities are the everyday bits of proof of the gigantic problem of assassination and incarceration of people of color, a problem exposed through film, fiction, academic studies, and activist organizations, including, but not limited to, Black Lives Matter.  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on rarity and reporting and this one on Black Lives Matter.)  We as a nation ignore these everyday occurrences at our peril, as they must form a part of our reckoning with racial injustice and our solutions to these profound problems of humanity, worth, and dignity.

Some of you may have seen the White House website’s piece on MS-13 gang members and activity.  (See the horrifyingly official headline in the photo above.) Robin Alperstein’s upcoming article in Dame Magazine will treat this issue, and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post addresses it here.  I therefore just want to mention the MS-13 piece in the context of dignity.  Calling certain groups of people “animals” does us all a disservice.  The person who uses the term diminishes the humanity of the person being addressed, her or his own humanity, and that of all of us.  (Of course, too, this derogatory term assumes a less than harmonious relationship with the flora and fauna that make up our world.)  Ass, bitch, chicken, cow, pig, pussy, rat, shrimp, snake—when we use these animal terms against people—we are understanding those people to be less human than ourselves.  Now, let’s return to the main point:  the so-called president of the United States chooses to use this language on the official website of his office—of our nation–, thereby representing us to the world in this demeaning, demoralizing, dehumanizing way.

The website text recounts atrocious acts and attacks of Mara Salvatrucha, a large transnational gang known for its violent campaigns.  The end of the piece states, “President Trump’s entire Administration is working tirelessly to bring these violent animals to justice.”  This jarring us/them, human/animal, superior/inferior, worthy/unworthy language attempts to establish the Trump administration as morally superior saviors, at best a laughable position and, at worst, an example of generalizing, xenophobic, and violent rhetoric directed at all Latinxs.  Dionne takes on the dignity question in this way: “But both of these innocent explanations underestimate Trump’s gift for using incendiary words that send clear messages to his supporters. He is brutally calculating in finding ways of casting large groups of people as undeserving of dignity. Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project.”  I shudder to think about the words of wisdom this megalomaniac narcissist will offer to the students graduating from the United States Naval Academy on Friday.

The “president,”—Groping Old President, paper-towel thrower, wall-builder, dictator-lover, cheater, liar, stealer, colluding election-grabber—clearly not the best choice to lead a diverse and complex nation, is also not the ideal person to express to a large group of 22-year-olds that they can choose dignity, express indignation in the face of social injustice, and commence a much-needed wave of change in a country struggling to hold onto any shred of humanity.

(Bulletin board at the university where I teach.  Much kinder than the White House website.)

El qué-dirán (The “What-Will-They-Say”)

The Spanish language boasts its own compound noun, composed of the question word “what” (qué) and the “they” form of the verb “to say” (“decir”), formulated in the future (“dirán”).  Today’s students grasp the concept of the “qué-dirán” in a blink of an eye, understanding the power of the looming “they,” the fear of the enigmatic “what,” and the social control implied by the “will say,” or the gossip.  This concept, which appears as a fundamental two-by-four in Spanish-language literature through the ages, affects us all and takes hold through the scaffolding of the social media networks.

Many people of my generation (50-somethings) comment on the challenge our children face in navigating social relationships. Of course, relationships among adolescents are often characterized by strife and heartbreak, as young people experience many emotions for the first time.  This hasn’t changed, but the social media environment has, increasing the number of people who form the “they” implied by “dirán,” the number of people who can engage in gossip and attempt to shape others’ behaviors.  Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that I don’t gossip.  We all do.

Before the social media era, nevertheless, wasn’t it already awkward and maybe even humiliating to be in fifth grade and find nowhere to sit in the lunchroom, or to be made fun of for an outfit you wore in seventh grade or a snorty laugh you emitted in eighth grade, or to find yourself in the midst of shifting friendships in ninth grade?  To have those moments and feelings constantly and repeatedly exposed on social media, rarely with your best interests at heart, must reinforce faltering self-esteem and imposed isolation on our children.  When I see mean posts and possibly even meaner shares, I am indignant on behalf of the person who was targeted, whether I know the person or not.  Even if meanness and snark are a part of growing up, and they definitely are, their amplification via social media certainly must be having its effect on the young people we love.

Friends’ and family members’ perceptions of us during adolescence contribute to our self-perception, I think for life.  What are the stories or phenomena of your childhood about which you’re still particularly sensitive?  I have two, neither of which is anyone’s fault, but each of which likely takes turns driving the car of my personality. (*Please see this “Loving People” post , which celebrates the many positive elements of my childhood.  I just realized that I wrote that piece one year ago. This time of year must have me reflecting on youth, love, and challenges.  Or maybe it’s moralizing May.)

The first formative element comes from inside the home, where I grew up as one of two girls in a family of seven children.  Busy days and crowded dinner tables made for some single-tracked conversations of which I (and probably my brothers and sister, too, at different times) often did not feel a part.  The single focus and the resultant lack of variety in conversation topics made me hunger to learn everything I could about other things when I was at school and/or on my own.  I still love the family conversations we had (often sprinkled with hilarious word play and almost always demonstrating profound affection), and I still love sports—part of my training—but I definitely like embarking upon deep conversations about other parts of our lives. My husband’s family was steeped in Philadelphia politics, a hot topic at their home, and those conversations, along with the lack of fear of disagreement or discord, appealed to me tremendously when I first started hanging out at their house.

The second item about which I’m still sensitive arose mostly outside the home.  At home, my parents, sister, and brothers expressed frequent and generous praise about my interests and endeavors (how lucky to have been surrounded by people who took a genuine interest, despite all I just said above about our conversational compass).  My parents also imposed what some would deem a militaristic discipline: up early; get to school; work hard; go to practice and work hard; come home, eat dinner, do chores; do homework; practice the instrument (generously provided by public school education); no television; go to bed.  On the weekends and in the summer, there was no lounging around in bed and there was always a list of chores prepared for each person.  We had a lot of fun, too, constantly playing and making up games and interacting with our siblings’ friends.  The ethos of the house was definitely “work hard, play hard,” and the work always came first.  This is how we were raised and what we were taught to expect and respect, and I think each of us kids brought it to much of what we did, and certainly into our adult work lives.

Therefore, when, especially in middle school, but also in high school, classmates decided my good grades were a result of hard work and no missed school days (ah, how I remember the ignominy of getting the perfect attendance award along with the highest grade award in 7th grade), I was unsettled in a way I couldn’t articulate until later.  At the time, I did not know how to analyze these comments, and I mostly left them alone. Later, though, I thought defensively, “I do work hard, but I’m also kind of smart, I think.”  It was a weird moment when I realized I had to defend working hard and assert that some academic skills came naturally to me.  I didn’t go around saying these things, but I learned to confront the strange criticism that someone who works hard must not also be intelligent.  Working hard to me meant, and still means, that I am serious about the endeavor before me, there are things I don’t know, there are talents I can bring to the project, and the hard work might bring joy and passion.  Hard work and working hard also mean that we occasionally learn to think more critically about social justice, effecting change, and being in the trenches with others who are willing to do the same.

My husband works incredibly hard and is a sophisticated thinker, passionate about what he does and says.  His strong personality makes him a force for positive change. (Hey, wait, have I been writing too many letters of recommendation this month?) My husband just recently told me, for the first time in our 26-year relationship, that he also was marked by the “you’re not smart; you just work hard” criticism leveled at him through grade school and high school. We hope that our children, whose work habits have been dictated by us but also cultivated by them, haven’t inherited this criticism, that they haven’t been the object of similar comments.

I leave you with two points today.  Social media make everything more complicated.  There is much to be learned in hard work—actual information and skills, collaboration, passion.

Funny Women

Old joke: Question: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: That is not funny.

It turns out: Feminists are damned funny.  This includes Michelle Wolf.

Confession: For about five years now, I have wanted to learn how to write, launch, and perform a stand-up routine.  That’s why I’m fascinated with the television show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” created by Amy Sherman-Palladino and starring Rachel Brosnahan.  In the show, 1960s upper-crust housewife and mother Midge Maisel learns to fashion “the tight ten,” the perfectly pitched ten-minute routine of the stand-up comic.  I am not hilarious, but I am sometimes pretty good at recognizing and recounting unusual stories, which might work towards a tight 45 seconds.  Gender-bending situations, misunderstandings between and among languages, and mishaps of menstruation, maternity, and menopause would have to be developed to get the other nine minutes and 15 seconds.  I would want to undo some of the work of the Andrew Dice Clays of the world and celebrate the hilarity of more contemporary comedians, who are accomplished and much less overtly misogynistic, if not outright feminist. Who knows, a girl can dream, right?

Full disclosure: I think it would be funny for a 52-year-old woman to start with, “So, I went to the dentist and the gynecologist today.  Only two cavities.”  I can hear your groans from wherever you’re reading this, but wouldn’t the shock of a large-bosomed 52-year-old woman saying this make it even funnier?  Okay.  A large-bosomed woman can dream.  Isn’t it funny to use the term “large-bosomed” more than once?  Not a single person I know—not even the kindest and most loyal among them—thinks this dream of mine is a good idea, so that should probably tell me something.

For these reasons and more, I have been following with keen interest the kerfuffle surrounding Michelle Wolf and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD).  I didn’t know of Michelle Wolf before this occasion, but I sure do now, and I would bet many people could say the same.  She is really funny.  Her irony and deadpan delivery slay.  She is a comedian, and so she is supposed to be funny, edgy, surprising.  The WHCD allowed her to display all of these talents, which she has developed over the past few years through improv classes, writing for and performing on Late Night with Seth Meyers and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, doing her own HBO Comedy special, and now having a regular comedy show on Netflix.

If you didn’t catch the full routine or haven’t seen snippets of it, where the hell have you been?  Just kidding.  You can check out Wolf’s own website, which offers the night’s highlights by category: Sarah Huckabee Sanders; Ivanka Trump; Donald Trump; Democrats; the media.  The website also emphasizes the ultra-serious conclusion of Wolf’s routine, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.”  In this piece from Cosmo (4/30/18), Jill Filipovic astutely examines the White House’s hypocritical response to Wolf’s remarks in the context of the WH hostility towards the press/media and the increased danger for the press corps during Trump’s time in the presidency.  Filipovic writes, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water. That line was in the same speech as the one that mentioned eye shadow and Aunt Lydia. Only one of those things is truly offensive, and it didn’t seem to register on the list of outrages felt by members of the White House Press Corps. There are wives and mothers in Flint, too – if Michelle Wolf talks about their eye makeup, will we finally care about them?  Reporters should make the powerful very uncomfortable. Their obligation is to reveal the unvarnished truth, no matter how awkward the facts are or ill-mannered one seems for delivering them.  Luckily, someone at the White House Correspondents Dinner did that. It just wasn’t any of the journalists.” The beauty magazines definitely understand fashion, and it’s clear that, in the age of Trump, Vogue, Teen Vogue, and Cosmopolitan see feminist protest and humor as appropriately fashionable.  (I won’t get into the multiple hypocrisies of this in today’s piece.  I’m busy trying to figure out eyeshadow names, like “Smoky Ash” and “Large Bosom Gray.”)

Comedian Elayne Boosler also rises to Wolf’s (unnecessary) defense in this Time Magazine piece (5/1/18).  Boosler has it right: comedians are to be judged on the quality of their humor.  I would list intelligence, surprise, bite, and social commentary as key elements to be critiqued.  Boosler says, “Outrage is how you know you did well.”  This Washington Post piece (4/29/18) also claims that “Michelle Wolf got it just right.”  Indeed, she did, and I love that each negative comment about Wolf makes this talented comedian more certain that her performance achieved exactly what she wanted.

In this interview (5/1/18) with NPR’s Terry Gross, Wolf says, “I think sometimes they look at a woman and they think “Oh, she’ll be nice,” and if you’ve seen any of my comedy you know that I don’t — I’m not. I don’t pull punches. I’m not afraid to talk about things. And I don’t think they expected that from me. I think they still have preconceived notions of how women will present themselves and I don’t fit in that box.” Indeed, Wolf’s high-profile performance allows her to remove the box, occupy a physical and metaphorical space most frequently inhabited by male comedians, give voice to funny women, and remind us of severe social ills.  Those who want her to play nice have to undo their own biases, as Wolf seems to take on the cloak of irresponsibility so celebrated in the context of men comedians and so little appreciated among funny women.  Of course, age-old tropes tell us that “public women” are to be feared, silenced, and placed back into the box.  Wolf’s principal transgression seems to be her refusal to comply with these antiquated expectations.

Question: How many feminists does it take to turn on the lights?  Answer:  All of us.

Stop Soft-Pedaling Rape and Rapists

(From elconfidencial.es)

Many of you have read about the resolution of a criminal case in Spain last week.  The case, described thoroughly in this The Guardian article from last Thursday and this December, 2017, article from El País, involves an 18-year-old woman who was at the Pamplona Running of the Bulls (“los sanfermines”) on July 7, 2016, and was approached by five men in the early hours of the morning.  They offered to walk her to her car, but instead took her to a lobby of a nearby building, where they raped her and filmed the gang rape on their cell phones.  One man stole the woman’s cell phone before leaving the scene of the attack.  The five men, self-named “La Manada,” or, “The Wolf Pack,” planned and filmed the attack.

Last week, the five attackers were not convicted of rape, but of “sexual abuse,” a decision that brought a lesser punishment of nine years in prison (five years to probation) and a 10,000-euro fine.  One of the magistrates, Ricardo González, deemed that the event was consensual from start to finish.  His questions and comments sexualize, rather than criminalize, the case, thus demonstrating his inability to make fair judgment and the ease with which more than insensitive legal actors can influence outcomes and retraumatize individuals attacked in violent cases.  In addition to harming the survivor, the blame-the-victim line of questioning does further harm to any person who has experienced such violence.  The distinction made by the Spanish law and the court, in this case, is that sexual abuse does not involve violence or intimidation.  Upon hearing the decision, thousands in Spanish cities big and small took to the streets, in a wave of protest, to decry the utterly unjust verdict and the revictimization of the young woman who survived the brutal attack. (*See the BBC’s report of the protests here.)

Were any of you stuck in the last paragraph at the mention of “sexual abuse does not involve violence or intimidation?”  First of all, I would think that both sexual abuse and sexual violence involve violence and intimidation and that the impulse to distinguish one from the other here is an impulse to say that boys will be boys and, well, rape just happens.  Second, when a single person, armed with only a cell phone, is surrounded, stripped of her clothing, and raped by five grown men in a building lobby, we can clearly say that person is being both intimidated and violated.  It is sheer insanity to say otherwise. Saying otherwise reveals the depth of our (us, our cultures, our laws, the people we know) willingness to allow violent, insecure men to take and keep control of others.

At the very least, this case is forcing Spanish legislators to reckon with these laws and is demonstrating how thousands of Spaniards are willing to protest this toxic masculinity embedded in the law.  Protests of “No is No,” “We are All the Wolfpack,” “I Do Believe You, Sister,” and “Justice Now” contribute to a public display that might help to move the legislative needle in the centuries-overdue right direction.  The President of the High Tribunal for Justice in Navarra, Joaquín Galve, has criticized protesters for being out of control, and yet has no comments about the out-of-control verdict handed down last week.  This is yet another case of embracing a centuries-old status quo and blaming the wrong group of people—those who are appropriately protesting profoundly unjust laws. (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on the status quo, this one on civility codes, this one on rape as violence against a real person with a real body, and this one on gender-based violence in Spain and elsewhere.)

As were many people, I was particularly touched to see a group of Carmelite nuns from the north of Spain write and post a communiqué on Facebook to protest the decision and express support for the young woman in the case.  According to this piece (the translation is pretty close to what I read in the original Facebook post in Spanish), the nuns write: “We live in closure, we wear a habit almost up to our ankles, we do not go out at night (more than to the Emergency Department), we do not go to parties, we do not drink alcohol and we have taken a vow of chastity.  And because it is a FREE option, we will defend with all means within our reach (this is one) the right of all women to FREELY do otherwise without being judged, raped, intimidated, killed or humiliated for it.”

I will leave it to Spanish critics to determine the significance, if any, of the occasion of the sanfermines, a runaway seven-day fiesta that caters largely to foreign tourists wanting to drink until dawn and then run the streets with the bulls.  Perhaps this celebrated tradition has a deep-rooted masculinity at its core that has dictated to young men that bulls and women are to be taunted, maimed, and killed.

No expert in Spanish law, I still believe that legislators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges have a long way to go in terms of understanding how legal precedents based in the Napoleonic Code (think of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s tremendous short story, “El indulto” [“The Stay of Execution”], which criticizes both perpetrators and legal codes designed to allow them to keep committing crimes) dictate patriarchal power that continues to be extremely difficult to undo in the courts.  In addition, lack of representation of women in powerful legal and judicial positions (*see this 2017 article with statistics) limits the likelihood that new perspectives will be introduced and taken seriously, thus confounding the initial problem of legal history and stagnation in legal reform.  On-the-spot protests like we see happening throughout Spain, along with sustained protest movements like “Ni Una Menos” in Latin America, must continue to gather steam, push legislators and judges, and change the deep acceptance of gender-based violence still so prevalent in this 21st century.

Rape is rape, not “sexual abuse.” Rapists are rapists, not “sexual abusers.”  Let’s call it what it is, ensure there are real consequences for the crime, and effect lasting cultural change.