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.)

A Twisted Tale of Two Harassers (Welcome to the White House)

Last week I learned that titles like “Sexual Assault Prevention Training in the News” don’t grab readers.  Maybe this week’s title will, and certainly one of the people to whom it alludes has spoken famously about grabbing.

Mainstream and not-so-mainstream media, from People and Cosmopolitan to The Washington Post and The Atlantic, have been crackling this week due to the revelation from a resurfaced 2002 Mike Pence interview that the only woman with whom Pence will dine alone is his wife, Karen Pence.  (*Here are links to more coverage of this issue:  The Guardian, Slate, and Canada Free Press.)  As you know, Mike Pence was governor of Indiana and is now the Vice President of the United States.  His level of world awareness and understanding of gender essentialism boils down to one word: cooties.  Pence seems to believe that all women are temptresses and that he has limited ability to hold himself back from such temptation and infection.  Therefore, he will not have a meal with any women who aren’t Karen (that’s a lot of women) and won’t hire women staffers with whom he would potentially have to meet alone in the evening hours (that’s all staffers).  Jia Tolentino remarks in her The New Yorker article on the piece, “That Pence was able to do so speaks to an incredible level of inequity in the workplace; no successful woman could ever abide by the same rule.  How could you sex-segregate a thrice-daily activity and still engage in civic life?”

(Pence with the only women with whom he trusts himself to interact)       (http://canadafreepress.com/article/pences-dinner-arrangements-with-women)

What Pence is doing technically is not harassment, but discrimination.  He is discriminating against all women and limiting their professional advancement because he is afraid that he will harass them.  Actually, that gives Pence too much credit.  I’m guessing he is just afraid that he is too weak not to have sex with all of these women who so obviously will be throwing themselves at him because he is so desirable.

Tolentino states that Christian evangelicals often invoke the “Billy Graham rule,” which, Tolentino writes, is a refusal to “eat, travel, or meet along with a woman” and which “stems from a story that the famous pastor told about walking into a hotel room and finding a naked woman, bent on destroying his ministry, sprawled across his bed.”  While Tolentino appropriately detects some hyperbole in this account, it might be helpful to imagine the gender roles reversed.  What if a famous woman minister returned to her hotel room after a night of preaching to the masses and found a naked man sprawled on her bed?  I hardly think she would have the luxury of separating herself from all encounters with men in order to avoid scandal.  This version of the story would likely have her limiting encounters with this individual man out of fear of assault, not out of fear of scandal.  Of course, the Billy Graham rule also seems to limit contact with any non-Christians, thus violating Title VII based on not only gender, but also religion.

Pence’s ego drives the decision to discriminate, just as Trump’s drives him to harass and assault.  (*See The New York Timestranscript of Donald Trump’s comments about women.)  As you can see, we have here not the Tale of Two Harassers, but a White House of virulently white, pro-Christian, pro-male men.  Pence castigates women (limits hiring, work access, and promotion of women in high-level government) because he doesn’t trust himself, and Trump speaks of violating women because they are mere objects for his consumption.  Again, Pence alienates women with a weird version of pedestal politics: his wife Karen is somehow pure through her singular connection to him, but all other women are just Biblical temptress bots.  Trump alienates women by verbally and physically harassing them individually and en masse, thus training women to raise red flags around him, while also cementing their place as the non-hireables.  These two powerful men distance those who are unlike them (non-white; non-man; non-Christian) and, in particular, privilege their power in the public sphere over everything else.

As I write in Gender Shrapnel, these behaviors have broad implications for people of color, non-Christians, and women as individuals and as members of specific groups.  Individuals who experience the Pence-type discrimination and/or the Trump-branded harassment are limited in their horizontal movements, that is, their movement through the work day.  These individuals won’t be invited to power lunches or golf games, where networking and decision-making take place, and they might have to actively avoid a harasser whose physical presence threatens, looms, and impedes work production.  Discriminatory and harassing behaviors also suppress vertical movement, or the ability to advance in the workplace through good work, collaboration, and professionalism.  Members of groups offered protections under Title VII law can sense themselves as further limited by a group identification (or, importantly, a perceived group identification) that is undervalued or even actively discriminated against.  The Title VII protections are often difficult to enact, especially in conservative judicial districts in many areas of the United States.  Nothing like having the White House be the beacon of bad (and illegal) behavior.

It was the worst of times; it was the worst of times.

(But at least we have late-night comedy and The Onion:  http://www.theonion.com/article/mike-pence-asks-waiter-remove-mrs-butterworth-tabl-55661)