A few months ago, I got into a conversation about an event that continues to resonate with current issues surrounding freedom of speech, association, and religion: a legal debate about whether an individual testifying in a court of law should be permitted to conceal her face for religious reasons. It didn’t end constructively. I know rehashing personal arguments can be rather tedious, but do bear with me: The summary here is meant to further a broader point.
In this conversation, the original poster regarded the ruling (that the woman in question needed to take off her religious garb in order to give testimony) as an unacceptable hurdle to feelings of victim safety and comfort, one which further harms already deeply marginalized persons in the process. My concern was that changing laws around victims’ rights without bearing in mind the court’s equal responsibility to afford a fair trial to the accused can create adverse consequences. In this case, the notion of facing one’s accuser, and the complicated issue of allowing the jury to assess this witness with the same messy non-verbal metrics used for anyone else, were aspects I felt could not be summarily dismissed.
Granted, these are not easy issues, since the visual assessments any jury makes are always subjective. As such, I also argued that these kinds of situations ultimately highlight the failure of the courts to provide a fair process for all members therein. I therefore advocated focussing activist energies on elevating restorative justice models above traditional courtroom proceedings.
(Restorative justice is a kind of group mediation that allows all persons affected by a crime an opportunity to be heard and negotiate redress in a less oppositional manner; such proceedings have a higher satisfaction rate for victims and perps alike in Canada, and global models are scalable from small civil matters to cases of genocide’s impact in a given community, with the emphasis placed on finding local solutions to local problems, instead of turning any traumatic situation into an even more distended, vicious contest with absolutist notions of winners and losers.)
I realized the conversation was not going well, though, when I saw activist jargon thrown around as if its very presence was enough to make a cohesive argument. At first the counter was an accusation of ableism–for what if the defendant were blind? How could he ever “face” his accuser then? Well, if he were fully blind, he couldn’t, because he’d be physically incapable of such a feat; nothing could be done to standardize those proceedings by which the majority of defendants get to face their accusers. But what bearing did that have on situations where choices do exist? And what’s the relevance of invoking a differently abled defendant at all, if the argument being furthered is still that the defendant’s position doesn’t matter?
In light of that first comment, though, the second was even more coded to suggest that the use of certain terms constituted a complete, coherent argument; the second rebuttal accused me of allying myself unequivocally with white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied males against all marginalized groups by cautioning against changing laws with reflection only on the victim’s position.
At that juncture, I brought a halt to the conversation; the straw man was so stark, and so blatantly employed certain demographic terms as if they were insults, that I felt no understanding could be brokered between us just then. 1) Not every defendant is part of that demographic subset (indeed, if anyone looks at conviction rates it becomes pretty clear that other marginalized groups are disproportionately in the defendant’s position); 2) Even if the law were changed on the basis of one case where a member of that status quo demographic was in the defendant’s position, that law would still thereafter apply to all cases, with all manner of persons in the defendant’s position; and 3) Does every participant in a court proceeding, whether or not they come from a dominant demographic, not deserve to be treated equitably? Is an individual less deserving of fair treatment from the outset of court proceedings because he belongs to a demographic that as a whole enjoys more social privileges?
I arrive at these questions not from a place of certitude about the case; I am very cautious about the long-term implications of precedent-setting for courtroom accommodation, but I also understand that, for persons who have elected for religious reasons to cover their faces, the sense of vulnerability when taking the stand (something I have done myself, shaking like a reed in the process; courts are pretty uncomfortable places in general) might be even more pronounced. My concern lay with the myopic approach used to evaluate this situation: a very common behaviour set, I’ve noticed, even among the very well-intentioned–and certainly exacerbated in those who think allegiance to a particular cause, or familiarity with a particular set of terms, inherently makes their views correct.
I tend, then, to avoid discussion of political events on social media and on this blog, for the obvious reason that the internet is often a terrible place for meaningful conversation, and for the less obvious (but related) reason that the language of activist discourse has a lot of counterproductive weaknesses to it. Knee-jerk reactions to (often intentionally sensationalized) media inputs, confirmation bias, “in-group”-oriented jargon and rhetoric, and sweeping generalizations are just a few of the impediments caused by the notion that all talk must be culturally transformative in its own right. There is no such thing as neutral ground in language, certainly, but once the impetus becomes that one’s words must always do something, one often sees a lot of well-intentioned energy thrown into too narrow a piece of the advocacy puzzle.
In this case, for instance, recognition of a perceived safety concern and potential breach of freedom of religion for victims from a marginalized demographic was dealt with in a way that presupposed guilt on the part of any person in the defendant’s chair, and in isolation of the justice system’s failings as a whole. And there are sadly many failings therein; we live in an age where the pervasiveness of the prison industrial complex is well understood, but simply so immense that it leaves most of us helpless to respond. On a day-to-day level, this leads many of us to react in a case-specific manner: indignant about how unjust the system is to defendants one day; indignant about how unjust the system is to victims the next. Is this the most useful way of seeking meaningful and lasting change?
Another example–extremely painful, and extremely divisive–involves the horrendous gang rapes in the news this past year. In Delhi last December, for instance, a 23-year-old woman was raped by six people on a bus, and died of her wounds thirteen days later. This was an unspeakably vile act, and by no means the last of its kind; I find myself struggling to suggest that what some human beings can conceive of doing to one another is unfathomable, but of course it’s not. It’s brutally fathomable. Most of us just fervently wish it were not.
In the West, though, much of the activist discourse that emerged from this heinous act focussed on the notion of systemic “rape culture,” and of course demanded that something must be done. The cry to action was already alive and well in India, too, where a tremendous number of people bravely took to the streets and clamoured for redress. Something needed to be done! These men needed to be punished for their crimes! Other men needed to learn respect for all human beings, and the way to do this was by getting the legal system to treat rape cases seriously and efficiently!
Well, in this case, such global outcry achieved many of its goals. One of the six, a juvenile, was sentenced to three years in prison. One of the six died in jail. And the other four were very recently sentenced to be hanged, because India has the death penalty. “Do something!” Western activists initially cried in response to these horrific attacks. Silence is what you’ll now find–uneasy though it may be–in the face of a penalty that has incredible ethical issues, too.
“Rape culture,” by the way, is shorthand for a culture in which people feel entitled to judge the victims of sexual assault as responsible for the acts committed against them. It’s shorthand for a culture that either tacitly or even explicitly endorses the notion that certain people have the unquestioned right to exact sexual gratification from other people. It’s shorthand for a culture in which it is considered more immoral to bring a halt to a friend or coworker’s “good time” than to stop a rape before or while it’s happening. It’s shorthand, in short, for a culture of excuses and self-serving justifications around the widespread incidence of rape.
While there are benefits to this activist term, though, it is also at once very broad–so broad that “rape culture” is often uttered as a complete argument unto itself, which serves no educational purpose to those not already “in the know” and offers nothing new to those who are–and very narrow.
Yes, we live in a culture that makes a lot of self-serving justifications around the widespread incidence of rape. And other forms of physical assault. And murder. And war. This is not a coincidence: As a species, we have a terrible track record in general for recognizing and respecting the bodily integrity and rights to life and livelihood of our fellow human beings.
The problem with not using language that better grasps the picture in full, then, is that it can only provide short-term or very localized solutions, and often in ways that only further exacerbate the underlying factors that created situations requiring redress in the first place. In the case of the horrific gang rape in Delhi, for instance, how can one not recognize the existence of the death penalty as a blatant, overarching reminder to all citizens that the value and integrity of any life is already finite; already in certain circumstances subject to the choices of other human beings? Is that an appropriate, constructive mentality in which to raise persons who will fundamentally value the lives and livelihoods of others?
This in turn highlights the trouble with situationally-motivated activist discourse: It fosters oppositional approaches to human suffering. The anguish that arises in the wake of a rape (particularly if violent) predisposes socially-engaged persons to seek restitution through the isolation and punishment of perpetrators, but those same persons often then lack the rhetoric with which to allow for the ultimate rehabilitation and reintegration of such perpetrators into the society they initially harmed. Some activists, granted, will do otherwise; they’ll focus on the hope that convicted criminals get the help they so clearly need in prison. But this remains a minority position in terms of media representation, in large part because the primary battle being fought in so many of these cases is for any conviction at all. The intentions may be good, then, but focussing on one part of the problem to the exclusion of the others can still reap counterproductive ends. How, for instance, does any endorsement, however tacit, of the “once a criminal, always a criminal” ideology allow communities to heal? How can we build a culture of mutual understanding and informed compassion when our energy is primarily focussed on punitive response?
(Those same socially-engaged persons are also very often among the first to sigh at the prison industrial complex at large, and the myriad persons whose entire lives have been lost to that system. These cognitive dissonances are killing us.)
Since I am part of the academic community, the most common critique I get of this position is that it is clearly idealist, and purely theoretical. One part of the common counterargument goes that simplifying one’s terms is the only way to reach and educate a wide enough base to advance to the next, more important step: political action. Another part suggests that there is no way to effect meaningful change except on a piecemeal level, even if those changes have adverse consequences in related spheres. Do I want to see progress or not?
My position therefore becomes untenable for some because it requires focussing on how many different aspects of our cultural institutions and beliefs work together to propagate human suffering, and shifting our activist strategies and energies to match. (And heaven forfend that I mention “intersectionality” at this juncture, because for an activist term expressly calling attention to how many different layers of oppression may be in tension at any given time, it is still most commonly applied in a situation-specific way, too.)
Entreating caution when advocating for specific reforms is also often regarded as a kind of deflection; don’t I realize how condescending I sound when I refuse to place primary importance on a given, hurting individual in one very specific, awful situation? Yes, the courts may be deeply flawed. Yes, the prison system may be broken. Yes, we live in a culture where even liberal-leaning activists are often far better at advocating for punishment than community healing. But what about the frightened woman who wants to testify in a court of law, yet has spent her whole adult life believing that a man who is not her husband seeing her face would be an unbearable violation unto itself? Where is my compassion for her?
I saw the kind of ivory-tower rhetoric these counterarguments more broadly condemn most recently in the writings of Matthew Arnold, in which the nineteenth-century poet holds that criticism has no place in “the political, social, humanitarian sphere if [the critic] wants to make a beginning for that more free speculative treatment of things, which may perhaps one day make its benefits felt even in this sphere, but in a natural and thence irresistible manner.” In essence, he argues that one must remove oneself from the day-to-day world (or make some pretence at removal, at least) in order to develop the broader theories needed to transform it. Arnold also suggests that it would be futile to do otherwise, claiming that the rough, inexact, and generally vulgar mechanics of state institutions cannot bear criticism of their very existence and still function, and that established practitioners therein will always misunderstand the criticism anyway–either on its own grounds, or through imputations drawn from the critic’s personal background. Without a “free disinterested treatment of things,” he argues, “truth and the highest culture are out of the question.”
This notion of a “free disinterested treatment of things” resonates with a justice model constructed by political theorist John Rawls, in his 1971 publication, A Theory of Justice. The “veil of ignorance” is a thought experiment that asks you to imagine a precursor state to this world–a place where all the principles of justice for this world will be laid down in advance, but by a body of entities that has no notion of precisely what their place in the world to come will be. Will they be athletically advantaged, with a minority skin colour in an isolated community? Born with an extremely limited range of motion, to a large family of moderate means in a big city?
Since you have no idea who you might be in the world to follow, the exercise becomes obvious: You have to lay down a framework of operating principles that will ensure that even the most vulnerable person in this system is as well off as they can possibly be. This may mean that the maximal state a person can attain is lower than it otherwise would be–but what relevance will that have to you if you end up in the most vulnerable position when this world is set into motion instead?
The trouble with this thought experiment–and the trouble with Arnold, too; the trouble, in short, best encompassed by accusations of theoretical high-mindedness–is that we most obviously cannot put ourselves behind that veil of ignorance, or ever fully detach ourselves from the world. Certainly, we can operate along a spectrum of attachment and detachment, and an education in critical thought plus a fundamental sense of empathy for our fellow human beings can improve our ability to recognize and inhabit other perspectives to an extent. But issues still arise whenever we allow ourselves to assume that we can ever truly enter a neutral state from which all facets of a given problem might be viewed “objectively.” I may want to consider all ramifications of a given advocacy position before endorsing it; I may recoil from the knee-jerk, situationally-specific activist responses I see so often emerging from various news items, but that does not preclude me from having biases of my own in the process.
If I were not a secular humanist, for instance, who both upholds the right for a person to wear what they want and believe what they want, but also finds the patriarchal notion of female “modesty” bound up in traditions of Islamic headgear deeply unsettling, would my response to that original situation have been any different? Quite possibly: Maybe I would have tacitly bought into the notion that the defendant is probably guilty anyway, so why bother thinking about his rights in the process? Maybe I wouldn’t have been interested in the case at all. Many different arguments might have emerged, in short, if I were not me, with my own, distinct set of exposures to the world and reactions therein.
My response to such criticism, then, is a clarification of purpose in writing such an essay at all: I may well hold that situation-specific activist discourse has many potential weaknesses, employing limited-use terminology and ideology to sanction gut and mob responses to often incompletely understood news items. I may well also hold that such routines of reaction without reflection offer too many opportunities to invest the best of intentions (and the energy to match) in advocacy for narrowly-focussed changes that may have adverse or otherwise insufficient consequences. But I state all of the above while firmly acknowledging that the simple act of cautioning against such applications of activist language and routines does not somehow detach me from operating situationally myself.
This essay is therefore not an attempt at distancing myself from persons who respond in such well-intentioned, if often knee-jerk ways to the major issues of our day–or even to suggest that a person is wrong to consider a vulnerable individual in immediate distress of the utmost importance in any given debate. Rather, it is an attempt to call attention to that broader social fabric in which all our words and their outcomes are equally implicated, and to underline one critical observation above all others: that what we say around a given issue, just as much as what we do not, will inform all our advocacy battles still to come. Are there ways to act in the moment with a more cohesive sense of the future we’re striving for?