This is not about sympathy. It is not about sob stories. Like my last post on disability (inspired by Dorothy Kim writing for ITM), it is about counting. It is about raising awareness. To use the terminology of multimodality, it is about acknowledging the cultural practices of our times – and changing them. It is about discourse, for the current prevalent societal discourse – the sugar-coated poison which infuses popular culture with impossible ideals – does not recognise that here, now, everywhere, human beings are being abused. We probably always have been, but that doesn’t make it acceptable, anywhen.
One day I hope we will see a society where there is no such thing as ‘coming out’. A society where everyone, regardless of their position on the various spectra of gender, sexuality, disability, colour, class, can just be. And will be respected and loved for who they are. Idealist? Guilty. Inherent believer in the ultimate goodness of humanity? Ditto – despite the evidence, despite past experiences. (Could I say that even if someone had hurt my child? I would like to think that, eventually, I could. I pray I will never have to find out. And if it were your child, and you couldn’t, then I would not judge you. I would support you, give you all the time you needed, but I would not seek revenge on your behalf.)
One form of ‘coming out’ which is growing in importance is the coming out as a survivor of abuse. Putting that another way: all sorts of people in different walks of life are pointing out just how many abusers there are in the world. This, in turn, is making us count. As a woman with a happy home in one of the safest countries in the world I gaze in horror at the tales I know, the tales I have heard. Nowhere is safe. At this time of year people, particularly young people in education, are at the beginning of new journeys, new challenges. Are there predators circling, waiting to pounce on these vulnerable potential victims? Of course there are, but they are in the minority. Probably the most numerous potential abusers are themselves victims. Maybe they are also on a new journey. Many surely don’t realise how much they have to learn. It takes a brave and wise heart indeed to be able to recognise that one’s own bad experiences can generate more of the same. When your own personal boundaries have themselves been breached, how hard it may be to see that acquiescence out of fear is not the same as consent – particularly in the bold ignorance of youth. The victim of bullying is expected to resist becoming a bully when things don’t turn out like the books with happy endings promised. The child of an over-strict parent is expected to know that that is no way to treat romantic partners when they don’t submit as they do in cheesy films. The victim of assault is expected to not turn violent when they (rightly or wrongly) believe themselves threatened again. The survivor of depression and self-harm is expected to not be jealous of those who struggle to comprehend what they cannot understand.
Many years ago, a young man I used to know who had been a victim of all of the above went from friend to lover to prolonged systematic abuser of someone who had only ever wanted to help him. There, I said it. Looking back, it didn’t take my heart long to forgive him, once I had escaped to a better place. It has taken a long time for my soul to heal enough to be able to come out and be counted.
The heroes, you see, are those who break the mould. Those who channel their negative experiences into a force for change. It won’t happen the next day. It may not happen for years. But those who can suffer harm without doing harm, those who can love freely without wanting more, those who can live through incomprehensible sadness yet maintain an openness for the beauty of life; they are the survivors we should admire while we mourn, love, and respect those who, for whatever reason, could not complete the journey.
Anyone following #mybodymyhome (website here) will know that one of the world’s most talented writers, Shailja Patel (website here), has come out as having been recently sexually assaulted just days after her return to Kenya, and that campaigners all over the world have come together to support her. Anyone with a social media account, let alone half an eye on current affairs, will know that a young man miles away on the same continent is awaiting sentencing for killing someone he says he loved. One of these tales is in the full media glare. The other may not be in the spotlight, but its diffuse and disturbing light can be glimpsed virtually everywhere.
Oscar Pistorius is portrayed by said media as a villain and a victim, as a rags-to-riches playboy and a vulnerable traumatised soul, as a heroic world-class athlete and a bad liar out to save what he can of his skin. The same outlets can portray him as different versions of these extremes from one day to the next – indeed, in the same day. Due to his celebrated and celebrity status, suddenly Web 2.0 knows better than the judge what she should decide. While a detailed multimodal analysis of the media portrayals of the trial would be fascinating (anyone looking for a PhD topic in multimodalality / African studies / disability studies – if you’ve already got a supervisor in mind you can thank me in your acknowledgments), what I am focusing on here are the cultural practices involved. South Africa as a nation has been the focus of external media gaze for longer than I have been alive. First, those of us on the outside boycotted its produce. Then we watched as Mandela walked to freedom. We sang along with Jim Kerr and Simple Minds. We cheered the rise of the ANC, the elections, the presidencies, the mixed sports teams. The fractured society and rampant gun culture which simmer underneath do not fit into this fairytale. Nor does the fact that it might be OK to shoot someone if they are an intruder – because everyone knows that intruders are not human beings, are not innocent until proven guilty; more to the point, because everyone knows that any intruder is likely to be armed and will shoot to kill if not shot first.
In the same way, everybody knows that women’s bodies are public property. They sell cars and motorbikes. Open a certain UK newspaper apparently like any other and you will see full-frontal top-half female nudity (which, naturally, you won’t find on facebook, even with a baby’s head covering more than any clothing could). You won’t find women’s football reported in that newspaper, of course, or indeed in many others (Norwegian newspapers, I salute you). Women’s words are spun around their clothing and hairstyle, around someone else’s opinion of their looks. Threats can be made with impunity. Microagressions, everyday sexism, mansplaining, the works. Women are, after all, bodies with holes in. And human beings notice bodies. We are programmed to. I’m no biologist but I wouldn’t be surprised if we evolved to assess faces and bodies as part of the subconscious evolutionary drive which powers all species, not just ours. But what sets homo sapiens apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is that very ‘sapiens’ – the conscious thought. The ability to override our instincts, and to train others (and other species) to do so. We can train a dog, a horse, mebbie not a cat I grant you, but seals, bears, ferrets, ourselves. A leopard can change his shorts – if he wants to. It is a much harder task to change a society’s cultural practices.
Yet it can happen. It has to. Psychologists, sociologists, historians, and anyone who has read any Orwell knows that what stands between research and government policy to drive change is the people, the sheep. The masses are made up of individuals. Indeed, because of this linking position, there is great power in the hands of those seeking change. Campaigning works. (Eventually.) You see, cultural practices are not, thank all you consider holy, set in stone. Every single one of us can be a hero and change things for the better, whatever our status, background, or culture. Every victim you believe. Every judgment you don’t make. Every gentle gesture. Every time you double-check ‘is this OK for you?’. Every time you ask a child’s permission for a hug. Every time you use your own hurt to help someone else.
This post is dedicated to the heroes. You know who you are.