Spanish speakers know the nuanced differences between the verbs ser and estar, and Spanish language learners encounter lesson after lesson on the differences between these two verbs, both usually translated into English as “to be.” If you combine “aburrida/o/x” with ser, it means “to be boring,” while combining the word with estar means “to be bored.” This important distinction plays out in many other combinations, making the use of these two key verbs rich, rewarding, and rife for linguistic play.
But today’s blog post is not about grammar. Today I am thinking about the word “dull” in English in the context of world, national, and local events. I am both dull—not sharp, not ready, not synapsing as I usually do—and dulled—adrenaline on overdrive and body on shutdown—by these events. I still feel anger, frustration, sadness, and outrage, but I feel them in a muffled way—not quite robotic, but also not quite human. The other day, a dear friend and fellow activist spoke through tears as he described the case of Nusrat Jahan Rafi, who reported to Bangladeshi authorities the sexual assault committed by the principal of her school, only to be burned to death by a group of men attempting to defend the principal and punish the woman for reporting.
The BBC recounts the story in this way: “Nusrat Jahan Rafi was from a small town, came from a conservative family, and went to a religious school. For a girl in her position, reporting sexual harassment can come with consequences. Victims often face judgement from their communities, harassment, in person and online, and in some cases violent attacks. Nusrat went on to experience all of these. On 27 March, after she went to the police, they arrested the headmaster. Things then got worse for Nusrat. A group of people gathered in the streets demanding his release. The protest had been arranged by two male students and local politicians were allegedly in attendance. People began to blame Nusrat. Her family say they started to worry about her safety.”
The consequences listed in the BBC article are common in many reporting environments, and the family’s worry for their daughter’s safety was of course deeply connected to their tacit understanding of patriarchy’s unremitting violence. My friend’s appropriately shocked and sad response to this incident contrasted sharply with my quick, understanding nod and shift to a different topic. This is not like me. Violence and injustice usually move me to tears, and then to action. Kindness and generosity do as well. And there I was, noticing my friend’s tears from a distance, unable to register shock or sadness, despite the fact that every minute of every day I am so worried for our world, so worried about how power for power’s sake and sheer selfishness have taken over. My response was both dull and dulled.
Three years ago, when “Candidate Trump” (to use Mueller Report terminology) had gained major traction but few people believed he could win, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace came out. All of the sharp, feisty observations I had made about gender injustice in the workplace were tempered in the book by abundant research, a sober, academic tone, and a writing process that required a certain slow care. The sharpness was made necessarily duller, as the pen battled the sword. At the same time, I watched the GOP continue to push its retrograde rhetoric and policies and to gather support for a Groping Old President who would mock the disabled, cage children, otherize the non-Christian, non-U.S. born, non-white, non-hetero, non-male, and peaceful populace, and weaponize the White House in support of only him. The shrapnel—based in gender, race, religion, national origin, ability, and any other attribute designated by the GOP as weak—continued to swirl around us to such an extent that it became the norm, the weapons in the air, the fight and flight.
Hillary Clinton’s recent op-ed in The Washington Post (4-24-19) reenacts the dynamic of the period prior to the 2016 presidential election and the election itself in that a smart, tough, and experienced woman tells the country what’s what, and she’s right, and the country somehow pays her no mind. She should not have to do the mea culpa she performs early in the piece: “Obviously, this is personal for me, and some may say I’m not the right messenger. But my perspective is not just that of a former candidate and target of the Russian plot. I am also a former senator and secretary of state who served during much of Vladimir Putin’s ascent, sat across the table from him and knows firsthand that he seeks to weaken our country.” Once again, a woman is having to state her well-known credentials just to be able to do the work, to write the rest of the article, to school the country on what it already should know. Clinton cogently lays out a four-point plan for responding to the Mueller report. She concludes by saying, “Of all the lessons from our history, the one that’s most important may be that each of us has a vital role to play as citizens. A crime was committed against all Americans, and all Americans should demand action and accountability. Our founders envisioned the danger we face today and designed a system to meet it. Now it’s up to us to prove the wisdom of our Constitution, the resilience of our democracy and the strength of our nation.” Clearly, Clinton’s intellect has not been dulled by the repeated attacks against her, nor by what those repeated attacks say about United States patriarchy and failing democracy.
In the meantime, in our little local area, our high school is operating under a dress code that is more burdensome—in both the text of it and the application of it—for girls than for boys, thus suggesting that a Title IX discussion is warranted. Girls believed to be in violation of the code are labeled “defiant” and are unduly punished, thus again demonstrating how we police women’s bodies and then punish women for standing up for body autonomy. Besides the dress code, concerned citizens interested in at the very least a discussion of an outdated non-discrimination policy for the public schools are told that everything is fine and that no discussion is needed. What are administrative groups so afraid of? How do we overcome the throbbing dullness of groupthink and groupspeak in our government?
It is no wonder the senses dull. I understand more viscerally now what I never understood in studying coups d’état and dictatorships, that the daily struggle to resist in the early-going can exacerbate the challenges of the longer-term resistance.