If you’re American and haven’t been hiding under a rock, by now you know about the scandal involving the Duggar family of 19 Kids & Counting fame. For those who don’t know, 19 Kids and Counting is an American reality show about a family with, you guessed it, 19 kids. And yes, they are part of the Quiverfull movement, a fundamentalist Christianity that eschews all forms of birth control, including the pill, condoms, IUDs, injections, pulling out (hey, it’s extremely unreliable anyway!) and even the rhythm method. There are a lot of jokes about the Duggar family that have circulated the Internet over the years, many which you have probably seen, such as this demotivational poster:
Other variations of this are “It’s not a conveyer belt”, “It’s not a vending machine”, and from Bill Maher, “It’s not a water slide.”
The latest news as that the oldest Duggar son, Josh, who was the executive director of the anti-LGBTQ group Family Research Council, was involved in a sex scandal. After the details emerged, 19 Kids & Counting was cancelled.
When the news first broke that Josh had done “something inappropriate” with a girl when he was a teenager, I stopped myself from caving in to my first impulse, which was to say, “Someone on the far right gets caught in a sex scandal. What else is new?” The details had not been released and I wanted to be as impartial as I would want the right to be when someone in the atheist community gets in trouble for something. I entertained the notion that Josh might have simply been caught consensually fooling around with someone, say, two years younger than him and below the age of consent, which may or may not take into account the age difference between the two parties. Then the news came to light that Josh had molested a younger girl.
I am a little hesitant on judging an adult based on something stupid he did as a teenager. Let’s face it: teenagers are stupid, and I was no exception. Should I be held accountable now for stupid things I did in my teens? But then more information surfaced, revealing that this was not an isolated incident. Josh had molested not one girl once, but several girls, including his own sisters (one of which was 5 at the time) over the course of a year. Part of me still wants to give him the benefit of the doubt (as disgusting as I find that entire family’s beliefs and their reality show) and say, “He could have just been young and stupid.” But doing so would have been burying my head in the sand and ignoring several fundamental points.
First, I am sorry to say that I am not surprised that something like this happened. If a boy is growing up in a family that is cut off from the real world, taught that sex before marriage is evil, and that even certain thoughts are “dirty” and “wrong”, and that as a man you get to have dominion over women, it shouldn’t be surprising if that boy releases his emerging sexuality in a destructive way when sexuality isn’t even allowed to be acknowledged. Hell, look at all the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church. I’m not excusing or apologizing for Josh’s actions. Quite the contrary. I think Josh Duggar is disgusting, and his abuse of his sisters is just the beginning.
It’s the aftermath that disgusts me the most. Josh Duggar’s father, Jim Bob, found out about Josh molesting his sisters and sent him to live with a family friend for a few months and do manual labor. Jim Bob made a state trooper (who was later arrested for child porn) give Josh a talking-to. Jim Bob only reported Josh’s actions long after the statute of limitations had expired and so Josh couldn’t get arrested. And then of course there was all that crap about asking God for forgiveness and then “changing his life.” When the story eventually hit the airwaves, Josh expressed regret about his past actions. He made a passing reference to having hurt his family, but he made more references to sin, God having changed his life, and God having forgiven him.
I have to wonder– when Josh talked about having hurt his family, did he realize the psychological damage he may have caused his sisters? Did he ever say to himself, “Wow, I can’t imagine what it must have been like for them, knowing that I could come into their room in the middle of the night and touch their genitals and breasts”? Did he ever say to himself, “My poor sisters must have been so terrified”? Did he ever say to himself, “I was so stupid when I was that age and I don’t know how I was so blind that I didn’t see what I was doing to these girls”? Maybe, but I doubt it. Based on the statements made by Josh and his family, it is very clear that Josh’s regret is based on the nebulous concept of sin– in this case, that God doesn’t like it when people touch someone’s genitals outside of marriage, regardless of context– and not based on the real-world, human consequences of breaking familial trust and abusing his sisters. If Josh really has stopped touching people inappropriately, then great. But I suspect he has stopped for the wrong reasons. Besides, who’s to say he won’t do something like this again, since he can ask Jesus for forgiveness?
Another part of the Duggar family that disgusts me is their vehement dislike of LGBTQ people. Love the sinner, hate the sin? Whatever. Michelle Duggar, the mother, knowing full well what her son had done, campaigned against an ordinance in Arkansas that would allow transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. Why? Because she claimed to be afraid that transwomen (or as Michelle put it, men pretending to be women) could go into the bathrooms and sexually assault little girls. Statistically, transpeople are more likely to be be harassed and assaulted in bathrooms than to harass and assault someone themselves. Josh Duggar, meanwhile, went on to become executive director of the Family Research Council (he has since resigned in light of the scandal), a group that lobbies against same-sex marriage and other rights for the LGBTQ community. If Michelle Duggar’s campaigning is any indication, they’re not afraid of children being molested. They just don’t like LGBTQ people and they want a scapegoat for certain horrific acts, someone who isn’t one of them. Someone from the outgroup. An other. Or maybe they just feel worse if children are molested by evil LGBTQ people rather than “good”, heterosexual Christians like Josh Duggar who can pray to their invisible sky daddy and be forgiven.
It’s an inconvenient truth that children are more likely to be molested by someone they know then by a stranger. It’s an inconvenient truth, too, for the Duggars, that in attempting to protect their children from the “sinful” secular world, they failed to protect them from abhorrent behavior perpetrated in their own house.
Both my brother and I seem to have been endowed with a genetic makeup that fosters skepticism.
To be fair, I think my brother is more of a born skeptic than me: I believed in Santa Claus until I was six years old; he never did. He never believed in God; for years before declaring myself an atheist at age twenty six after reading The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, I waffled back and forth. I will say this, however: I did stop believing in Santa Claus earlier than most kids, at the age of six (the average age is eight). I also didn’t make the “sudden discovery” that many kids make that kills their faith: that is, I didn’t catch my parents wrapping the presents or catch them putting the gifts in the den. I simply stopped believing because I thought about it one day. Well, okay, it was after a little coaching from my brother. The Christmas of 1986, when I was six years old, was the last year that I believed in Santa Claus. My brother, nine at the time, kept telling me there was no Santa. “Reindeer can’t fly”, or “How could he get around the world in just one night?” or “How could he fit down the chimney?” or, since we lived in a house at the time that didn’t have a fireplace, “If Santa went down the chimney, he’d burn his backside in the boiler.” Naturally, I was very upset when my brother said these things to me and I refused to believe him. I honestly and sincerely believed that Santa Claus knew that my brother was being “bad” and that he would get coal instead of presents. Then the following year, when we moved to a new house (that, incidentally, does have a fireplace) I was in the basement one day looking for something when it suddenly occurred to me, “Well, of course he’s right! There is no Santa Claus! That’s silly!”
About a year after that, I began to have my doubts about God. If Santa Claus is made up, after all, then doesn’t it make sense that God is as well? Given that I grew up in a mostly secular Jewish household– Reformed Synagogue, on the high holidays only and yes, presents for Christmas– I was free to think these things. I first learned about a soul at around age seven not from any indoctrination but from reading an article in the parents’ guide portion that came packaged with my subscription to Sesame Street Magazine (oh, come on, you really think I would have just given it to my parents like a good little girl?). The article was about tough questions that children ask. One example, if I remember correctly, was about burying a dead pet rabbit in the backyard and a child asking if the rabbit is in heaven. I showed the article to my mother and asked, “Couldn’t they just dig it up and see if it’s still there?” Then my mother told me that some people believe in a soul. When she explained what it was, I remember thinking that it sounded really stupid. And chances are I may have even said, “That’s stupid!”
Around the same time, at age seven, I was attending a day camp. One day a little girl came up to me and asked, “Do you believe in God?” I answered honestly, “No.” The little girl said, “You have to believe in God. My mom says if you don’t believe in God you’ll go down to the devil.” I probably said, “No you don’t.” or “That’s stupid.” And I seem to recall that she reiterated, again, “You’ll go down to the devil.” Then she proceeded to give me this long lecture of what would happen to me if I didn’t believe in God (I don’t recall the details) which finally ended with her declaring, “And then a dinosaur will stomp in front of your bedroom window and say, ‘Yoooooou dooooon’t believe in God!'” I remember feeling terrified after that encounter. I knew that what she said sounded ridiculous. But her mother had told her these things, after all. Maybe this was something that my parents just hadn’t told me about yet.
I kept silent about this incident for a very long time, ultimately because I eventually forgot about within a few months, but initially because I was afraid to tell my parents. I was reluctant to tell them for one simple reason: I was afraid that they would tell me that the girl was right. I know now of course that this is ridiculous. Mom would have been upset that the girl’s parents were allowing their child to frighten other children, and Dad would have been particularly upset about the religious aspect of the entire matter (he’s never been a huge fan of religion). But the fear and guilt festered in me for a couple months. There were several times when it was on the tip of my tongue to tell my parents about what had happened, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The fear that they would tell me that the girl was right was just too strong. There was one time in particular that I remember being in the car with my mother. She asked me what was wrong, and I said, “I don’t want to say it.” Oddly, she didn’t press the issue.
Bottom line, for a couple months until my child’s mind moved on to something else, I lived in fear and horrible guilt over hell after one conversation with an obnoxious little girl. It didn’t matter that my parents never forced God on my brother and me. It didn’t matter that my parents said, “Some people believe in God, and some people don’t.” It didn’t matter that the concept of “hell” was never introduced in my household. This horrific fairy tale that has been keeping people frightened for millennia frightened me, a seven-year-old skeptical girl. And this fear continues to take hold of other children’s minds. As frightening as it was for me, imagine how much more frightening it is for kids who grow up in a household where the fear of hell is ingrained in their consciousness.
I am really getting sick of people simplifying the problem of sexism by reducing it to one little abstract package called The Patriarchy, as if there is an invisible cabal out there conspiring to keep women barefoot and pregnant. While it is true that there are some men out there who want to keep women down and out of jobs and conversations that are traditionally “for men”, that is just one part of the problem. From my personal experience, the sexism that I’ve suffered comes not from men but from other women. Yes, other women. When I tell people this, they tell me that it is just women parroting what “The Patriarchy” has instilled in them over the years. Actually, I think there is something else going on that has nothing to do with a historically patriarchal society.
In Judith Rich Harris’s book The Nurture Assumption, Harris discusses in-group and out-group mentality. Employing the old Japanese expression, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”, she points out that those who do not “fit in” with the group that they are supposed to be in are ridiculed and bullied. This is, perhaps, an evolutionary strategy that ensured cooperation among our ancestors to help them survive. There are many in-groups depending on the social context. Sometimes these in-groups are not based around gender, but sometimes they are. And in terms of gender, it has been my experience that women are more tolerant of feminine behavior among men and men are more tolerant of masculine behavior among women. But in terms of gender-atypical behavior within their own gender? Forget it. We all know how often guys call effeminate men “faggot”. And we all know how often women… well… from my experience the way they gender police is more indirect and passive-aggressive.
I am not the most traditionally feminine woman out there. In fact, I wouldn’t say that I’m traditionally feminine at all. I am very direct. I have a raunchy, absurdist, Monty Pythonesque sense of humor. I am very loud, too, and I hate small talk. I’m also opinionated to the nth degree. Typically, the people who get upset about these behaviors on my part are other women. But instead of talking to me directly, they complain about me to other people. Or they report it to someone in charge (head of a Meetup, boss at work, etc.). Growing up, my mother policed my tomboyish behavior far more than my father did. In fact, my father generally though my mother’s policing was ridiculous. When I want to meet new people, I usually know what contexts to find like-minded people, men and women. But when it comes to a context– such as work– where people of all different backgrounds are thrown together, I almost invariably get along better with the men.
Right now I can hear some people saying, “Well, that’s the patriarchy again, thinking that there are mental differences between men and women.” Sorry, there are. But this is just a generalization and obviously not reflective of each individual. Research has indicated that men and women in general have different styles of thinking and behavior that is rooted in biology to the tune of different genes and hormones (obviously, I’m a potpourri of behaviors typical of both genders, but in many ways on the more masculine side). Research has indicated, for example, that girls exposed to extra testosterone in utero exhibit “tomboyish” behaviors. Recently, Sam Harris got some flack for pointing out the reality of differences between male and female brains. And jeez, he’s a neuroscientist! Wouldn’t he be a good authority on this type of information?
There is scientific research backing up the assertion that men’s and women’s brains are generally different and that these differences are rooted in evolution. For practical reasons, there were different selection pressures on men and women. It made more sense for men to be more direct, to spend more time alone, to talk about “things” rather than engage in small talk, and to be more aggressive. They were the ones who had to hunt, after all. Women were the ones who had to take care of babies while the men were out hunting. They also had to know whom they could trust with their offspring while they were sick or out gathering. Simon-Baron Cohen theorizes that gossip and small-talk served as a “social lubricant” for women to help them figure out whom they could trust with their babies.
People have tried for years to raise their children in gender-neutral ways. It didn’t work. For the most part, the girls generally behaved like girls and the boys generally behaved like boys. Without this understanding, the term “transgender” would be meaningless. Many transgender people report that they were “born this way” and that they’re “in the wrong body” and that they feel like they have the brain opposite of their biological sex. Reporting scientific evidence for sex differences in the brain is not sexist. What is sexist is forcing people into prescribed roles if they deviate. Doing so invokes what is called the naturalistic fallacy.
That said, why is there still sexism? Ask just about any educated person, and they will deny being sexist. They will also deny being racist. And they probably honestly and sincerely believe that they are none of those things. That’s because we now live in a society that is fighting these problems. So if most educated people aren’t overtly sexist and racist, then what the hell is going on?? Why are there still problems with racism and sexism?? Once again, let’s return to evolution. Our ancestors had to make quick, snap decisions about the world around them. They had to categorize. And the speed at which they did it meant the difference between life and death. So they had to do this unconsciously. Today, this may manifest itself as unconscious bias, something discussed in great depth in The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam.
Here’s an example of unconscious bias: Someone walking down an inner-city street sees a white man and says, “Hello,” and smiles. Someone walking down the same street sees a black man and not only does not say hello but also crosses to the other side of the street to get away from him. He might not even consciously realize that he exhibited two diametrically opposed behaviors in the same situation. He made a snap decision based on the information his brain unconsciously processed. And everybody is guilty of unconscious bias to some extent. Yes, me too. So I think the next step in minimizing racism and sexism in our society is not token phrases like, “Girls can do what boys can do” or “Blacks and whites are equal.” We already know these things. The next step is to make people aware of unconscious bias. I have, on numerous occasions, stopped people dead in their tracks, calling them out on their unconscious bias. In many cases, they’ve sheepishly said, “I’ve never thought of that” or “Oh, my God, you’re right.” And so have I, when it’s been pointed out to me.
My brother should have become a lawyer. I have never met anybody who debates as well as he does. He easily spots logical fallacies and argues with great clarity and never gets emotional. And yes, if he’s wrong, he will see it if it’s presented to him in a clear, logical, and convincing manner. It’s impossible not to question your own positions after debating with him. If only he were on Twitter when some of these shitstorms (you know what I’m talking about!) break out!
In the wake of some bloggers and Tweeters referring to celebrity photo leaks as sexual assault, my brother had this to say on his Facebook page:
I was going to write a post about some of the terminology that has been used to describe the recent celebrity photo leaks, but this article says much of what I would have. For the record, I have neither viewed nor attempted to view any of the photos.
I’m sure this will generate a lot of hate, but this is a subject I have particularly strong feelings on and have thought about a great deal over the past couple of years. I certainly welcome comments and am open to having my mind changed.
There’s something that happens when we discuss emotionally sensitive topics: a linguistic sleight of hand, a kind of insidious verbal acrobatics, a possibly unconscious abuse of language that seeks to equate substantively different things by applying the same broad label to them and then judging the specific by the general. A type of reasoning where as soon as you can slap a broad label on something, as soon as you can categorize it, further thought, further discussion is killed, because the label comes with its own judgment, its own axiom, even if it ends up equating an ostrich and a sparrow because they’re both called birds.
To be clear, although the article makes this clear enough: what the hackers did and what the people affected suffered is awful, but by calling it “assault” we’re smearing the definition of the word to absurd near-meaninglessness and in the process trivializing the seriousness of physical assault. If you want to call this incident something, fine, come up with a word for it, but choose your words responsibly and thoughtfully.
One of my brother’s friends went on to say that you don’t have to even be touched to feel victimized and violated, and that therefore “assault” is a proper way to describe this. My brother then said:
Why stop at “assault”? Clearly there was a sexual aspect to this, and it happened without the victims’ consent, so why don’t we call it rape and treat it as such?
Or perhaps “forced prostitution”? These people involuntarily had sexual aspects of themselves appropriated and shared, which were presumably used by others in a sexual way, so why don’t we call it that?
My brother’s same friend then talked about the etymology of the word “assault” and why it therefore is an accurate term to describe celebrity photo leaks. My brother the should-be lawyer, never missing a trick, said this:
Language is malleable and words change, but not overnight. We’re not talking about the word “assault” as it was used half a century ago as compared to today.
Dictionary definitions aside, the world “assault” is nearly always used in both legal and everyday situations to refer to something physical. A physical attack is the sine qua non of an assault as any English-speaking individual typically understands it as it relates to human beings.
So what is happening here, is that you and the posters of these tweets are expanding the definition of the word by fiat, in order to encapsulate something that is essentially, substantively different from what the word signifies in current usage.
I want to point out that more than one of the tweeters suggests that even the act of LOOKING at these pictures constitutes assault.
This is where the “sleight of hand” comes in.
Let’s see where we’re at: before these tweets, we knew what “assault” was, and the definition was at least limited enough that we could find something in common between different instances of the crime, namely, that they involve a physical attack. We have centuries of human history to look at to realize the nature and extent of harm a physical attack can do, both mentally and physically, and to have formed a certain moral judgment against someone who perpetrates one.
With these tweets, people have arbitrarily expanded the definition of the word, by fiat. So now it suddenly has a much broader meaning. The essential characteristic of an assault, the physicality of it, is no longer defining or even central to the word. It’s become a much vaguer word. However, despite the fact that these tweeters have redefined the word, they seem to be judging it based on the moral and ethical implications of the older, more specific definition.
Relatedly, when you say that you or I would feel “assaulted” if this were to happen to us, you’re speaking metaphorically. Do you honestly believe that the subjective experience of being physically attacked is of the same nature as what the victims of the photo leak experienced?
Would you claim that a musical artist experiences the same thing if someone leaks mp3s of their album online as he would if someone broke into his home and stole hundreds or thousands of dollars in cash from him?
And once again, I am NOT saying what happened wasn’t horrible, and I am NOT saying it wasn’t a violation of privacy. But I’m saying use a word that reflects what actually happened. It was theft, it was a violation of privacy, and perhaps you can say it’s worse because it was a violation of sexual privacy. But it’s not “assault” by any definition of the word.
Language shapes thought, and thought shapes language, and we impoverish both when we blithely throw things into broad, easy categories that we have preformed judgements about, rather than examining their specifics.
The same friend then told my brother he should be debating with a feminist lawyer. My brother responded:
Why a feminist lawyer? I’m not talking about the law, I’m making a point about language and thought. As for the feminist part, if the victims were men, would it make leaking and sharing their pictures any more or any less of an “assault”?
The friend argued that my brother’s definition was confined to the legal definition of “assault”, and that this is why he should debate with a feminist lawyer. My brother said:
No, it’s tied to the commonly-used common sense definition of “assault” as it is nearly always used in the 21st century in English-speaking countries.
Again, the friend kept urging my brother to research the etymology of the word “assault”:
Etymology has no relevance here, historical usage has no relevance here – the people tweeting the accusations of assault and writing blog posts about it were not talking about the roots of the word or the historical usage of it (if they were even aware of it), they were — obviously, excruciatingly obviously — using it in the modern, English sense. Etymology is fascinating, but it’s not germane to this topic.
The expressive power of words and language comes not only from what words signify, but from what they do NOT signify.
Like, if we call this “assault” and the people who did it “assailants”, what meaning do those words even have? What ISN’T an assault? Is every transgression by one human against another an “assault”? It seems to be that we’re stretching the meaning so widely that it becomes useless. You may as well use it as a synonym for “crime against another person”. But what use does that serve?
Why not just call things “doubleplus ungood” and be done with it?
Another friend of my brother’s (a woman this time) said that etymology was important in this debate. And she went on to say that because there is lack of consent, the transgression of celebrity photo leaks is therefore assault. My brother’s response:
Nobody is disagreeing about anything having to do with consent, in any way. And explain how etymology is of supreme importance.
My brother’s male friend then challenged my brother with the term “assault on the senses”. My brother said:
It’s a metaphor, obviously. If I say I feel “crushed” by something emotionally, it has exactly zero to do with the sensation of having a piano dropped on my head.
Then my brother’s woman friend said that she felt that my brother was telling women how they should define sexual assault and of dismissing their disagreements with him by using terms such as “emotional” and “sensitive” to define the topic being debated. My brother responded (to both people, I think):
I can’t really argue with you any more than I could argue about evolution with someone who took the Bible as the literal word of God. The very basis of your thought, the lens, the axis that you view things along seems to undermine the very principles of debate. If, as you have said before “objectivity” is a construct of male privilege, if attempting to have a philosophical or moral discussion divorced of gut feelings is sexist and invalid, how is it possible to have a meaningful discussion or come to a conclusion about anything?
The woman felt that my brother was discussing topics that disproportionately affect women, marginalizing her feelings as “gut” or “emotional”, and using his male privilege to tell women how they should speak about themselves. My brother then said:
If this photo leak had happened with male actors and people had labeled it as “assault”, my reaction would have been the same.
Again, again, and a thousand times again, if you think the original post’s point was specifically about the photo leak, you are missing the point. I am talking about the careless use of language to twist one thing into another and kill critical thought.
We could likely have a similar discussion regarding the way people talk about any charged (not “sensitive” or “emotional” if I need to use a different word) subject. I think we would see similar broad categorizations, judgments that brook no argument, that kill thought and discussion, if we were on a subject like the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima, racism, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 9/11.
The woman argued that the Tweeters were using their Tweets to make people think more about the issue of consent. My brother then said:
These tweets were not isolated though. Before I even came across this particular article I had read another where the author equated it to assault.
I feel like there is this logical fallacy inherent in a lot of thought about things like this. A therefore B does not imply B therefore A. While a lack of consent may be a necessary component of “assault” that does not mean that anything where consent is lacking constitutes “assault”, unless you want to argue that I am assaulting artists if I download their music without consent.
The man kept coming back and telling my brother he was falling back on the use of “assault” as defined by the law. My brother said:
At no point have I focused on the law. In fact, I have explicitly said I’m NOT talking about the legal definition. I am saying that the word “assault”, as it is commonly used in English in the 21st century Western world, essentially entails physical violence. I’m saying that is the way 99% of the English speaking world understands the word “assault”.
And you never answered my question, [male friend’s name] why can’t we go so far as to call this “forced prostitution” or something similar? This is not a rhetorical question.
I don’t know, I’m exhausted by this and I don’t know if I have the words to make my perspective any clearer. Look up Ignoratio Elenchi, Begging the Question/Circular Reasoning, Equivocation, Etymological fallacy, Thought-terminating cliché.
The guy said that, no, he doesn’t think of the links as forced prostitution. He then told my brother he was being dismissive of how harmful celebrity photo leaks can be to the women in question. My brother said:
If after all this, you think that I don’t think this is harmful, and don’t view it as “reality”, then I have utterly, utterly failed to make myself understood.
It was hard enough finding a job just after graduating college, let alone in 2003– a post-9/11 economy– in New York City. I had had no experience and was so desperate to continue living in New York that I was willing to take a job wherever I could find it. A common practice small companies in New York do is to “try you out” for a few days after interviewing you and then make a final decision whether or not to hire you. An independent pet store in Brooklyn did just that for me. I worked there for two or three days feeding the animals and cleaning their cages. I didn’t mind getting my hands dirty– even if it meant cleaning up dog poop– because I have a great love for animals, especially dogs and cats. The “trial” seemed to be going very well and I hoped that I would be offered the job.
Two weeks passed and I did not receive a call back. I called the pet store myself. The manager said, “You did well, but I can’t take a chance with you.” When I asked him why, he said, “You got upset at me for calling you ‘honey’. I don’t feel like having to deal with a sexual harassment lawsuit.” I was shocked. The manager had called me “honey” once, it’s true. I had said, “Could you please not call me that?” He had then apologized profusely, and I remember thinking he seemed to be apologizing in a way more extreme than warranted.
The manager continued, telling me that recently he had posed in a photo with a woman for a some kind of promotion for the pet store. He put his hand on her hip and for this she sued him for sexual harassment for $10,000– and won. I said, “I would never sue anybody for something so stupid. I didn’t think you were harassing me. I just had that reaction because every day when I walk down the street creepy men call me ‘honey’ or ‘sweetheart’ or ‘baby.’ It was a just a knee-jerk reaction. It was no big deal, and at worst it made me feel a little uncomfortable. Don’t worry about it. I have better things to do than to sue people for stupid reasons.” The manager said, “Well, I don’t want you to feel a even a little uncomfortable.” And that was that. It’s a shame, because I really liked this guy.
Both the pet store manager and I had a “once bitten, twice shy” moment. I already explained why the manager was so gun shy about getting sued (I’ll talk more about him later). But what about me? Why did I say anything in response to him calling me “honey”? What did it even enter my consciousness? Let’s look at the background on that.
When I first graduated college, I moved into a cramped apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the worst areas in Brooklyn. Every day without fail, from the moment I left my apartment I was catcalled by drunk men, usually while walking along Fulton Street towards the subway. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought my name was “Baby”, “Sweetheart”, “Sexy”, or “Honey”. But it was more than idiotic name calling. Sometimes it was an invasion of personal space. One day when while I was walking home, a man jumped in front of me and shouted, “Hey, pretty girl!” I stepped out of the way and continued walking. The man jumped in front of me again, shouting, “You’re so pretty!” Another time, a drunk man who looked about ninety put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Hi, baby. How are you?” “Uh, fine,” I said, stepping away. Lots of other guys would shout, “Hey, honey, let’s fuck!” or “Hey, baby, show me your tits!” or something to that effect. The worst thing that happened was when I was walking along DeKalb Avenue and heard some strange noises. I looked around, trying to figure out where it was coming from. I turned around to see a guy stopped at a red light in his truck, making vigorous humping motions and orgasm noises at me. The previous encounters had been obnoxious, but this one was downright humiliating. I threw him the finger. What else could I do? It eventually reached the point that I was so fed up with ignoring these assholes, as people had advised me to do for the sake of my own safety, that I began talking back to them and calling them names. That made me feel at least a little empowered.
I couldn’t understand why this was happening. It hadn’t happened to me at all while I was in college, possibly because I had always traveled in groups (these friends had since moved to Los Angeles). I began to wonder if this was what it meant to be a woman living in a city, that your personhood would not be respected and that most men would just see you as a penis-receptacle, that they would feel entitled to act in such a degrading way towards you. Fortunately, I learned that this was not the case, as I left Bedford-Stuyvesant after a few months and moved to southern Brooklyn where I remained for several years. I can count on my fingers the number of catcalls I received after the move. However, the fact that it only took four months for me to want to get out of Bedford-Stuyvesant is a testament to how uncomfortable these scumbags made me feel.
I was still living in Bedford-Stuyvesant at the time that I “tried out” at the pet store. In the split second that the manager called me “honey”, all of these frustrating experiences that I had been dealing with on a regular basis cascaded into my brain and made me cringe. Once bitten, twice shy. Had this happened after my move I might not have given it a second thought. After all, women call each other “honey” as well. I think the manager was just being warm. Although “honey” can have “catcalling” connotations, it doesn’t have the same patronizing tone as something like “baby”.
But it’s easy to see why, given my experiences, I would get annoyed if someone called me “honey”. It’s also to see why someone with similar experiences would feel uncomfortable in an elevator being asked back to a stranger’s hotel room for coffee at 4 AM. In and of themselves, the “triggering” incidents are harmless, but they are a catalyst after several serious infractions. In my case, I thought to myself, “Why do men insist on calling me these stupid little names?”
Now, back to the manager. He had had a “once bitten, twice shy” moment as well. It only took one incident to make him afraid. After all, he was out $10,000. The woman who sued him might have had a “once bitten, twice shy” reaction when she decided she needed to sue him (ie perhaps she lived in a bad neighborhood where she was harassed on a regular basis), but I strongly suspect her motive was to get money out of him. I do question the man’s judgment, but I honestly don’t think he meant any harm. He probably wasn’t even thinking about where he was putting his hand, as it is common to pose with a hand on the other person’s hip in a picture. Had I been in that situation, I would have simply taken his hand and put it on my shoulder, or asked him to move his hand.
I consider myself a feminist, but I know that there are some feminists who would immediately shoot down my assertion that this woman might have been overreacting and taking advantage of a law designed to help those who are victims of harassment. I know that some of them will say that nobody ever overreacts and that nobody ever makes false accusations. I understand why they have that reflexive reaction– after decades of women’s concerns being brushed off, they are afraid of it happening again. The easiest thing to do is assume that life is black and white, that if someone says that they are a victim, they are a victim, and that if anybody says otherwise then he or she is an apologist for rape. However, it is important to note that if a woman does overreact to something– as this woman certainly did– it’s not because she’s a “hysterical” woman. It’s because she’s a person, and sometimes people overreact. And overreactions– from women and men– can and do ruin people’s lives.
What this comes back to is what I have been saying in a two recent blog posts: we need to stop falling into the “us versus them” mentality. It may be comforting but it is also damaging. We need to stop screaming at people and we need to sit down and have a discussion. Men need to listen to the concerns women have about harassment. Likewise, women need to listen to the concerns men have about being falsely accused which does happen. Otherwise, the conflict will go on and on. Women will continue to shout “patriarchy” and men will continue to shout “professional victim”, when what both are are terms to simplify complex situations.
I said it before and I’ll say it again: We need to have a discussion.
Also, I urge you to watch this video, which further elaborates my points.
Last week, Richard Dawkins posted Tweets about gradations of “bad” acts, commenting on how many people assume if he says that one act is worse than the other that it’s an endorsement of the lesser of the two evils. The real controversy began, however, when he posted: “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.” This was upsetting to a lot of people, including me (well, for me it was slightly disconcerting– I tend to handle situations like this more rationally than most people). I, personally, felt uncomfortable with that statement because there is a pervasive myth that date rape isn’t “really” rape and also because many men are dismissive of women’s experiences of harassment (“Oh, guys just do that.”) and rape (“What were you wearing?”). I am confident that this wasn’t Dawkins’s intention. However, many people falsely assume that date rape isn’t as “bad” because the victim knows the person. But that’s precisely why it is often more traumatic than stranger rape. Whereas one might come away from stranger rape thinking, “There are a lot of assholes out there” or “I’m taking the long way home from now on”, a woman– or a man; they get raped too– might come away after a date rape thinking, “How can I trust anybody again?” My conclusion was that Dawkins simply hadn’t thought it through before he Tweeted, and he admitted as such on his forum. However, I also understand that whichever rape is worse than the other was not his point. I can understand, too, how frustrating it must get for him how often his Tweets are scrutinized and how often people try to shut down his usually very valid points by telling him, “Check your privilege”. He is, after all, a rich white man, making him an easy target for this expression.
It very well might be that Dawkins’s “privilege” made it more difficult for him to see why he had it backwards as to which type of rape is usually more traumatic, or why that using rape as an example was not a good idea for a 140-character Tweet. His subsequent blog post was an excellent follow up to the drama and, in my opinion, should have been the way to initially express his thoughts rather than a little blurb that is easily open to misinterpretation. But this post isn’t about Richard Dawkins. It’s not about rape, either. It’s about the expression “Check your privilege” and how it fails to solve anything.
“Check your privilege” is an expression that is used whenever someone seems to be speaking from a place of naivete, ignorance, or obliviousness about a certain topic. What I find interesting is that it is only used to address white men because people of all backgrounds can be naive, ignorant, or oblivious about different issues. I think a more appropriate response would be, “Well, have you ever thought about it this way? Or that way?” or “Well, it’s easy for you to say that because you’ve never been in this situation.” The problem is that many seem to think that the only people who are capable of this lapse in judgment are white men and that it only applies to issues that primarily affect women and ethnic minorities. I can think of many situations where people– including women (not ethnic minorities, but that’s mostly because I don’t have a lot of close relationships with people in those groups, not because I have anything against them but because I don’t have tons of friends to begin with anyway)– have made this lapse of judgment.
Growing up, I was horrendously bullied, emotionally and physically. Whenever I told my parents, they told me to “just ignore it” or “just let it roll off your back.” It took me fifteen years to get it through to them that these things do not work and that their suggestions that they gave me growing up had been dismissive and belittling of my experience. It was very easy for them to tell me to “just ignore it”, “just let it roll off your back” because they had never been bullied. It was only in the late 2000s that bullying started to make the news and be taken seriously as as genuine problem. For the most part, adults are starting to get it (except, of course, the idiots on Fox News who say that it’s part of life and to get over it). This had nothing to do with privilege on the part of my parents and other adults. They simply didn’t get it. Part of the problem is that they didn’t listen as well as they should have because they felt that their position of parents meant that they automatically “knew” more about life than I did.
I think the most important thing is to remind people to acknowledge someone else’s reality, no matter how unusual or idiosyncratic it is. And in the case of children, let’s listen to what they tell us. Remember that for years children who had difficulty reading were told that they were not trying and were lazy. Years later, these people learned that there was a name for this problem– dyslexia. Once again, it’s so easy for adults who never had difficulty reading to make an assessment of the situation and dismiss the children’s intellectual and emotional turmoil as “not trying”. How about transgender children? For decades, transgender children have tried to tell their parents that they were born in the wrong body. They were told to shut up, to grow up, and often were institutionalized. Only in 2007 have professionals and parents begun to take this issue seriously and realize that these children weren’t just trying to get attention and weren’t crazy, that they were actually born with a medical condition in which the brain structure doesn’t “match” their bodies. Again, how convenient that people who had never struggled with gender identity were able to tell these children that there was something wrong with them.
My parents– my mother, in particular– have said that they’ve learned from me about acknowledging somebody else’s unusual reality. My mother is a high school teacher. She had an FTM student who came out as transgender. This teen told my mother that he wanted to be called by the new male name that he had picked. My mother did that. She told me that some of the older teachers were rolling their eyes about it and saying, “Why does ‘she’ insist on using a boys’ name?” to which Mom responded, “Because that’s what he wants to be called.” Period. No further explanation needed. That is this teen’s reality. Twenty years ago, however, my mother might have dismissed this teen’s experience as a phase or as a “problem” (but without the ridiculing, of course). Again, this isn’t about privilege. It’s about her not getting it before and getting it now.
I admit that I have had my own lapses in judgment. When I was a teenager, I was watching a special about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). One woman was a compulsive hoarder. I said, “Well, I bet if she had a gun pointed to her head that she would be able to break this habit.” Yeah… that was a pretty stupid thing for me to say. And yes, she probably could have stopped had she had a gun pointed to her head. But that’s an impractical way to approach life. And I wasn’t acknowledging that certain brain chemistry made it difficult for her to break this habit (of course I was a teenager when I said this, but still). Again, not about privilege. About not having had the experience.
As a more recent example, I have a bisexual friend who is polyamorous– and polysexual, for that matter– and who regularly goes to what are euphemistically called “play parties” to have sex with more women. Although my friend’s girlfriend at the time had known that she was going to be in an open relationship with my friend, she eventually became jealous and it was affecting their relationship. I asked my friend, “Well, do you really need to have sex with that many people?” My friend said, “I don’t need to but I want to.” I later realized it was a bit dismissive of me to say that. Obviously for the relationship to work, some compromise has to be made. But who am I to judge my friend’s reality as less valid as her girlfriend’s reality? Again, this has nothing to do with privilege! I could not see myself in anything but a monogamous relationship and so I simply didn’t get it!
I hope that I have shown that it is not just rich, white men who need to check their privilege question their perceptions. All of us have to. And here’s another striking example that occurred to me recently: the horrible situation in Israel/Palestine. While the Palestinians are no doubt the ones who are suffering the most, the situation is a lot more complex than one side being the good guys and the other side being the bad guys, and I’m not going to pretend, like many people do, to have the answers as to solve this conflict. Many left-leaning Jews that I know condemn Zionism. I personally have mixed feelings about it which I won’t get into here. But it isn’t it convenient that those who condemn it often don’t know the history that led up to its creation? Isn’t it convenient that many of these people who I know grew up in the 1990s, in the comparatively liberal northeastern United States without threats of antisemitism? What does that say about their privilege and having to check it? I have to admit, that was the one time where I employed the phrase “Check your privilege.” But again, reducing a conversation to three words still doesn’t help. In the case of Dawkins, he did not admit that he was misinformed because people attacked him and called him names, but because a (small, sadly) number of his readers gently pointed out to him his mistake.
People who attack Richard Dawkins and others for their opinions– which are sometimes misinformed– are not helping by saying, “Check your privilege.” They are using the expression as a conversation-stopper, as an ad hominem attack. It seems that they don’t want to have a conversation. They want to get offended and “other” the person into a “them” category, someone who “isn’t one of us and is a threat”. Instead of having a conversation about life and its nuances, they want to reduce everything to three simple words. Approaching people with six words– “we need to have a discussion”– is much more productive.
I was nine years old when I first became aware of the idea that sometimes death is preferable to life. My parents have always supported euthanasia, and my father in particular has always been especially vocal about it. He was less cautious than my mother about what he said in front of me when I was a young kid, and I first heard about his feelings on the matter during a car ride with him and my brother. Dad was telling my brother, then twelve, that he didn’t understand these “self-righteous people” who allowed suffering humans to “die in their own filth”. I am not sure what my brother’s understanding of euthanasia was when he was twelve, but I imagine it was better than that of most kids his age. On the rare occasion that I was exposed to such a discussion, I remember wondering why anybody would ever want to die, ever, under any circumstances. I came to the frustrating conclusion that it was one of those Things That the Grownups Understand and I Don’t. In short, the cliche, “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
I did understand when I was older, in late 1992, when I was twelve. Unlike my brother, I had to come face to face with a real-life example to understand why death can be merciful. Our dog, Smoky (not his real name– I don’t feel like putting myself at risk for identity theft), fell suddenly ill. He had become prone to seizures over the past six months or so and had been on medication to help control them. One night, while I was watching television, Mom told me that Smoky had had an intense seizure in the garage. He couldn’t get up, but we chalked that up to his being exhausted from the episode. I was worried, and asked my parents to take our dog to the vet. Two days passed, and when Smoky still wasn’t standing up and was coughing up blood– out of BOTH ENDS– Dad finally took him to the vet. He had to carry him inside. Twenty-two years later I can still remember the bizarre, putrid smell of the blood-tainted shit. I had never smelled anything similar before and I haven’t since. But it is a very clear– and disturbing– memory.
The vet said that Smoky would have to stay overnight. Already fearing the worst and crying hysterically, I asked, “Is he going to be okay?” The vet didn’t know. What he did later discover was that Smoky had something called acidosis. An excess amount of acid was present in Smoky’s stomach and intestines, which was why he had been vomiting and shitting blood. It was speculated that Smoky had either eaten a poisonous mushroom or contracted a bacterial infection (a large cut was later found under his chin). The vet was exceptional. He kept Smoky at his office for a few nights while he treated the issue. He balanced Smoky’s acids and bases. Smoky was in coma at one point. He came out of the coma and gradually was able to sit up, stand, and walk again.
Smoky came home a few days later, but not quite the same. He had apparently suffered brain damage, as he’d lost the instinct to avoid sleeping in his own urine and feces. He was unable to absorb whatever food he ate and once even tried to eat a wrench in the garage while my brother and I were at school and my parents at work. Smoky was constantly hungry and would easily consume an entire 20-pound bag of dog food in less than one week. He couldn’t control his bowels, so we had to confine him to a small space in the garage. Dad had to get up every morning at 3:30 to shovel up shit from the garage floor and sterilize the area with Clorox. He also had to bathe Smoky almost every day.The vet wasn’t sure if the situation would improve, but we decided to see what would happen over the next couple months. Smoky recognized us but shook whenever anybody came near him. I remember having to approach him very gently and talk softly to him until the shaking stopped.
Over the next couple months, Smoky was either confined to the small space in the garage or was outside in the backyard. About a month after he had fallen ill, Dad told me that he had spoken to the vet again and told me that it was possible that Smoky might not pull through. Because Smoky was not absorbing much (if any) of his food, he was rapidly losing weight. For some reason I took pictures of him during this time (see below).
. Out of context, one might have thought that he was a neglected animal. It was hard watching Smoky suffer like this. I was suffering, too, not knowing whether my dog was going to pull through, knowing that he was in a lot of pain, and knowing he was not the same dog. In fact, when I would tell Smoky, “You’re a good dog,” Dad would often say, “He isn’t even a dog anymore.” Some days this reality hit me harder than others, and I would end up crying.
The vet said that it was possible that Smoky wasn’t absorbing food because of a problem with his pancreas. The other possibility was that he had short bowel syndrome: the damage to his stomach and intestines had healed in scar tissue and that there was no lining to help him digest food. If the latter was the case, Smoky would never get better and the merciful thing to do would be to put him to sleep before he starved to death. Dad told me that if the medication that the vet gave Smoky to help his pancreas didn’t help him digest food within the next two weeks, then that was it. When dad told me this, I was hysterical. In those days, when I needed to talk, Dad and I often went for a drive, and that day was no exception. We drove around for a little while while I was crying. I don’t remember what I said, but I still did not want to accept that death might be the best thing for Smoky. Dad said, “If you really love that dog, you will let him go if this medication doesn’t work.” Amid my raw and wet eyes, I reluctantly said, “Okay.” I was beyond upset about it, but I was finally starting to get it. I insisted on being present to say good-bye, if it came to that.
Exactly one week after Dad had started giving Smoky the medication, I came home one day to find out that, just after I’d left for school, Smoky’s back legs had stopped working and he was unable to stand up. Dad told me he had taken Smoky to the vet to see if anything else could be done, and he would be there for a few days. I believed him. After all, Smoky had spent nights at the vet before, when he had first gotten sick. I thought this was one of those times. Besides, only a week had passed since Smoky had started taking his medication. I assumed we were going to wait the full two weeks.
That was Tuesday, December 8th, 1992. On Saturday, December 12th, it was over. Mom and Dad called my brother and me downstairs to have a talk. I already had my suspicions of what this talk was going to be about. “I just got off with the vet,” Dad said after the family was seated. I was expecting to hear that Smoky was either dead or that we were going to have to have him put to sleep. After a few seconds that seemed much longer, Dad finished, “Smoky died last night.” My worst fears were confirmed. My dog was gone. I froze as I felt the familiar moisture in my eyes, which I’d grown almost accustomed to over the past two months. I asked what happened. Dad said that Smoky had suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage. I ran upstairs to my bedroom, locked the door, and dissolved into another bout of hysterics. I swore that I would never get another dog.
Almost five years later– and only because the subject came up because my mother suffered a brain hemorrhage (fortunately she made a full recovery) and I had started asking questions about Smoky’s death– Dad told me that he had had Smoky euthanized the day that his back legs stopped working and only waited until the weekend to tell my brother and me so the news wouldn’t interfere with school. Between Smoky’s defective back legs and the fact that the medication clearly was not working, death was the only merciful option for my dog. In fact, Dad said had he known what he knows now, he would have had Smoky put to sleep the night he got sick. Of course I was upset that he and Mom had lied to me, especially since I explicitly stated that I wanted to be present at Smoky’s death, if it came to that. When I mentioned it to my brother years later, he said, “Well, Mom and Dad might have also been afraid that you would hate them for having Smoky put down.” I know that wouldn’t have happened. I had already reluctantly accepted that possibility. The only thing I would have been upset about would have been that we hadn’t waited the two full weeks to give the last-resort medication a chance. As upset as I was about being deceived, I have to give Dad credit for one thing– he had known that I would have never fallen for, “He died in his sleep.” Even then I knew it was the oldest lie in the book, one that parents famously use when trying to protect their children’s feelings when a pet is put to sleep. Because Dad came up with a very specific explanation– that Smoky had suffered a brain hemorrhage– I believed him.
After Smoky’s death, I felt a cascade of emotions– sorrow, loss, and disbelief. But there was another emotion that, in retrospect, trumped the others: it was relief. I wouldn’t admit it at the time, but I was relieved that the ordeal was finally over. I had my answer as to whether Smoky would make it or not, and Smoky’s suffering was over, and mine as a result. Three days after I had learned about Smoky’s death, despite my previous declarations to the contrary, I announced that I wanted another dog. I think I had a change of heart so soon because my mourning process had already begun when Smoky was still alive because I had known that he might die. Had he been healthy and gotten hit by a car, for example, my postmortem mourning might have taken longer. Life went on, and we got another dog the following August. Smoky had only lived 5 1/2 years, but our next dog, Sahara (again, not her real name), lived for a robust 14 1/2 years; for a large dog like her, this is the equivalent of a person living into her early 90s. When it was time for her to die, it was easier to accept because she’d lived a long life for a dog (unfortunately, I was living in New York at the time and I wasn’t able to visit my parents to say good-bye when it was time for her to be put to sleep). She died a good death, with my parents by her side.
It took me some time after Smoky’s death to process what I had learned. But over the next several months it finally decisively clicked in my head that it was for the best that Smoky was dead. It was sometime during that year that I had first heard the name Dr. Jack Kevorkian. When a friend told me who he was, I had had no idea that human euthanasia was illegal. I just assumed that Kevorkian was a guy in a hospital doing his job. After all, if it was right to put Smoky to sleep when he was suffering, why should it be any different for a human?
At the age of twelve, I finally understood why euthanasia is a good thing. At the time, I had thought that I was late in coming to this understanding, but I now realize that I was early in this understanding compared to most people.Only years later did I learn that euthanasia was not only illegal, but considered a very contentious issue (especially for people who haven’t watched anybody suffer a long death). When Smoky died after his 2-month illness, my strongest emotion was relief. Many people feel the same way after a relative dies after protracted suffering, and anti-euthanasia advocates use this fact as fuel for their cause. From their perspective, the person feels relief because s/he wanted his/her loved one dead, not because s/he wanted the person’s suffering to end. It is, as Al Gore might say, an inconvenient truth. It is also an inconvenient truth that dying people can become a burden on their loved ones. As I said, Dad was cleaning up dog shit every morning at 3:30 and bathing Smoky nearly every day for two months. People who are in advanced stages of terminal illness sometimes end up sleeping in their own shit (and I keep using the word “shit” not to be disrespectful, but to emphasize how horrible these situations can get), having to be bathed and catheterized every day, and spending much of their time sleeping or staring at the wall. The lucky ones are cared for by their relatives; the rest end up warehoused in nursing homes.
Right now I can hear people saying, “Well, this is a slippery slope to allowing people to bump off Grandma when she becomes a burden.” No. If the patient wants to live, no matter how obscene the circumstances, then s/he should be allowed to. It’s a choice, as it should be. And yes, the relatives need to respect that decision. I would imagine that a dying patient would be less burdensome to his/her relatives if those people know that they are respecting the person’s wish to live. However, most people don’t want to live like that, and they only stay alive because euthanasia remains illegal. It becomes more of a burden when the relatives are taking care of their loved one, knowing that s/he would rather be dead.
I had to go down this road again with a cat that I had in my twenties. Astoria (again, not her real name), at the age of 2 1/2, suddenly began breathing heavily and dragging her back legs. I took her to the vet, who immediately sent me to the animal hospital in Manhattan. The vets observed Astoria overnight, and the next day informed me that she had dilated cardiomyopathy. Her heart had become enlarged because it was not pumping blood efficiently enough. One of the side effects was that clots formed in her brain and that she was behaving, as the vet said euphemistically, “inappropriately”. As soon as they told me the news, I knew that I couldn’t in good conscience keep Astoria alive. I told the vet to keep my cat comfortable until I got to Manhattan to say good-bye. When I saw her again, I knew I was making the right decision– she was not the same cat. Although Astoria’s illness and death were sudden, I got a new cat two days later. I guess this time since I had already lost a pet (Smoky; my second dog, Sahara, was still alive and living with my parents in the house I had grown up in, but she was put to sleep a month later), I knew that moving on as soon as possible was the best thing. I got a new cat two days later. Of course I still missed Astoria, but my new cat facilitated my healing process. And yes, if a person’s spouse dies and s/he starts dating again two days later, that’s fine. It doesn’t necessarily mean s/he didn’t love his/her spouse; sometimes people just need to move on immediately to heal.
I know that someday my new cat, Sutphin (again, a fake name) will die. I will probably have to put him to sleep, whether due to illness or old age. He’s turning seven this year, and the average lifespan of a cat is 14-15 years. I accept that he might be halfway through his life. I also accept that next year something could happen to him and that I will have to put him to sleep. But so much I know is this– euthanasia is a humane option not just for animals, but for humans. And Smoky helped me understand that.
That was the status that popped up in my Facebook newsfeed earlier this week, just days after three Israeli teens had been kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian radicals. My Orthodox Jewish ex-neighbor of nine years, Naomi (not her real name), was the author of the post. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and assumed she was just shooting her mouth off because of her understandable frustration over the situation in Israel. I felt I should nudge her, so to speak, and gently remind her not to say things like that. So I wrote, “That isn’t even mildly funny.” But it turned out that Naomi wasn’t trying to be funny and wasn’t even shooting her mouth off. She assured me that she meant every word of it.
I was shocked that Naomi would say this. Although she had been raised Orthodox, she barely practiced her religion in adulthood. She didn’t even keep shabbat. She had questioned over the years and changed her views on certain issues. For example, once she saw that gay people were not the perverts she’d been raised to think they were, she was okay with them and even supported same-sex marriage. In fact, the only aspects of Judaism that she adhered to/believed were that she kept kosher and thought that the universe was 6,000 years old. She was even okay with my being an (Jewish) atheist and was willing to listen when I talked to her about the books about evolution that I was reading. She didn’t accept evolution, but she was not completely closed to the idea either.
The “Just kill all the Arabs” thread devolved into a tense conversation in which Naomi said that a Jew would never behave the way these extremists did. I told her that Israel has done wrong, every group has its nuts, and that Judaism (or any religion) does not deter violence. She dared me to name one instance where a Jew did something so awful. I reminded her that a few years ago there was a boy in Brooklyn who was raped, murdered, and dismembered by a Jewish man. Naomi dismissed it because it wasn’t political in nature. A few days later, an article emerged about how some Israeli extremists murdered a Palestinian boy. Maybe I should have just let it lie, but I didn’t. On my Facebook page I posted a link to the article, wrote “It goes both ways”, and tagged Naomi in the post. Immediately, Naomi dismissed the article as propaganda (it was written by Ha’aretz, an Israeli newspaper!). My only point was that both sides in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have done wrong and that every group has its nuts. She told me that I needed to accept that we were “the chosen people.” I told her that I rejected the idea of any group of people being “chosen”. But the conversation culminated in Naomi accusing me of spreading hate, insulting her friends (who she had pulled into the conversation), calling me a self-hating Jew, and then unfriending me. We continued the conversation on IM, and Naomi told me that she’d sooner save my cat from drowning than an Arab, even a child. I said, “So you would condemn a child to death for the beliefs of his parents.” Her justification? “He will grow up and stab a baby Jew.” I played the Richard Dawkins card and told her there was no such thing as a baby Jew or a baby anti-Semite. Both are too young to have religious and sociopolitical beliefs.
I had never known Naomi well. But we were neighbors in an apartment complex in Brooklyn in which I lived for nine years (2004-2013). We had had some nice discussions and helped each other out when needed. One week when I was gone, Naomi fed my cat. When I returned, I thanked her by treating her to lunch at one of the many Kosher restaurants in the area. I guess she forgot that. She probably also forgot that although I’m an atheist, I still value my Jewish roots and aspects of the culture. I have an Israeli flag. I’ve said that some of the best years of my life were spent at my (secular) Jewish summer camp. I would like to visit Israel again someday (I went on a teen tour affiliated with the camp in the ’90s). Naomi had been okay with my being an atheist, but she wrote me off the moment I told her that not all Arabs are “bad”, Israel has done wrong, and that there are some Jews who do bad things. She put me into a box with the label “Self-hating Jew.” Simple. Out of sight, out of mind.
I would like to think this kind of name-calling and oversimplified accusations, the “either you’re with us or you’re against us” mentality only happens when arguing with conservative and religious people. But it happens everywhere, including on the far left. In fact, in some ways the far left and the far right are two sides of the same coin. While it’s offensive to religious (and some moderate) Jews to criticize some of Israel’s actions, it’s considered politically incorrect on the left to defend Israel. In fact, sometimes one of the worst names you can be called is a Zionist. To many people, Zionism is an imperialistic, nationalistic, racist party that wants to kill Arabs. That is not true at all. While there are some scary forms of Zionism– the religious “God gave this land to us and the messiah will come once we have Israel” and “Jesus will come when the Jews have Israel” types of ZIonism are scary and dangerous (and obviously there are some “kill the Arabs” Zionists)– there are some more left-wing forms of Zionism that, while advocating a homeland for the Jews, also advocate a two-state solution and strong support of the peace process. This type of Zionism, in and of itself, I would say I’m neutral to. I really am not sure how I feel about this. One has to understand that European history has been like this: “There’s a problem? Kill all the Jews!” So of course wanting a Jewish state is understandable. However, a case could also be made that Zionism is dangerous, that even its most left-wing forms are slippery slopes to extreme Zionism, in the same way that Richard Dawkins argues that moderate religion is a slippery slope to extreme religion. But that is a discussion beyond the scope of this blog post. Let’s talk more about name-calling.
I have noticed that people often call one another names and hurl loaded accusations to guilt-trip them into buying into their point of view. The above anecdote is just the beginning; there are many other instances of this. For example, if someone criticizes radical Islam, they get called a racist or an Islamophobe. If someone criticizes a certain brand of feminism, they get called a misogynist. If someone says that “rape-culture” is too simplistic of a term for a society that has a rape problem, then they are told they themselves are part of the problem. Richard Dawkins has these names hurled at him on Twitter all the time. People also read deeply into everything he says. Although pro-choice, Dawkins once expressed concern about the fetus feeling pain during the abortion procedure. The result? People labeled him as sexist (never mind that many women hold the same view). Another time, he listed three white men as his intellectual heroes. Bad move. He was called sexist and racist. And yet another time, he said that he had been “grabbed” by one of his housemasters at boarding school. He said it didn’t do him lasting harm and that such “grabbing” isn’t nearly as inherently harmful as other forms of sexual abuse. Suddenly, he was accused of defending child molesters.
“I don’t know how he continues to put up with this shit,” said my father when I told him about some of the things that people have Tweeted at Richard Dawkins. Well, Dawkins isn’t the only one who has to deal with things like this on the Internet. Flame wars erupt all the time all over the blogosphere, and especially on YouTube. Accusations of racism, sexism, rape culture-enabler, professional victim, Zionist, self-hating Jew, anti-Semite, and more abound, and nobody is immune from these accusations. I’d like to think that this sort of thing is limited to the Internet where one can hide behind a computer, but it has happened to me in real life. In 2002, while working at a left-leaning summer camp, I was accused of animal cruelty. What did I do? I taped a sign to a cat. That’s right– I TAPED A SIGN TO A CAT. And no, the sign didn’t say “kill me” or even “kick me”. We had an activity called Secret Friends in which we would be assigned a random person to give gifts to. I thought it would be cute to “give” one of the camp cats to my Secret Friend, a 10-year-old girl. I made a sign that read “To Gloria, from your Secret Friend” and taped it to the cat. A counselor told me to remove it. I can’t remember what she thought was wrong with the sign being there. But I removed it. In the process, the tape pulled out some of the cat’s hairs. Startled, the cat ran under a porch. In front of the kids, the counselor said, “That was cruel. I don’t think the cat liked that.” and that I had probably hurt the cat while removing the sign, since it pulled some of the cat’s fur. It was absolutely humiliating to be reprimanded like that, especially in front of the kids. It was especially humiliating because I don’t think there are many people who love animals– especially dogs and cats– as much as I do. I also think it’s ironic that she had no qualms about humiliating me (albeit not intentionally) in the name of social justice.
Another time, at the same camp, I had the kids make a card to send to the then-developing memorial at Ground Zero in New York. Addressing the firefighters who had run into the World Trade Center to rescue people, I wrote on the card, “You’re the real heroes.” It turned out that this card wasn’t acceptable, either, as it suggested to some of the counselors that I was defending America’s foreign policy and being nationalistic. Needless to say, I never sent the card to New York. In frustration, I tore it up and threw it away.
Also at the same camp (in a different year) I wrote, “I love New York” on the sidewalk in chalk. In front of the kids, a different counselor told me that it was an offensive and nationalistic thing to write and that I should get rid of it.
What is happening here? Why do so many people– particularly on the far right and on the far left– like to oversimplify things and make accusations? Why was Richard Dawkins accused of apologizing for child molesters when he said that being “grabbed” didn’t cause him any lasting harm? Why was I accused of animal cruelty for taping a sign to a cat? Why is it that if you are Jewish and criticize something Israel has done that you are a self-hating Jew? Why is it that if you don’t think the Palestinian side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is entirely innocent that you are labeled as a racist and Islamophobic? Why is it that if you don’t buy into a particular brand of feminism that you’re suddenly a misogynist? Why do people call each other guilt inducing names– such as misogynist, racist, etc.– to try to force another person to their point of view?
I think the answer lies in evolutionary psychology. It’s an in-group/out-group mentality, I believe: You’re either with us or you’re against us. This mentality helped our tribal ancestors survive. Human tribes consisted of about 150 people, and certain dress and customs helped them to recognize who was in their tribe and thus NOT a threat to them. Jews have been horrendously persecuted for centuries (although in the last 50 years or so, particularly in the Northeastern United States, their situation has dramatically improved), so it’s easy to see why some very religious ones might be suspicious of a fellow Jew who doesn’t see Israel as flawless. It is a matter of survival. Maybe it’s harder for me to empathize with that mentality because my father’s family (his side is the Jewish lineage) got to the United States long before the Holocaust and thus the Holocaust isn’t in my family’s history.
But what about the other name-calling: the misogynist, pedophile-defender, cruel-to-animals, racist, etc.? Well, it’s pretty ironic, isn’t it? People have seen the injustices in human history– racism, sexism, child sexual abuse, animal cruelty– and want to put an end to it and not alienate people. The ironic thing is that in the process they ARE alienating people and continuing in the in-group out-group mentality, but just in a different way. If you identify as being on the sociopolitical left, you know damn well there are certain views that you’d better have to be accepted. Unless you think that the Palestinians are 100% innocent in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, then you’re a racist. If you say that some child sexual abuse is worse than others, then you’re defending child molesters. If you don’t make sure your list of heroes includes a certain quota of blacks, women, black women, black transwomen, and people with disabilities other than Stephen Hawking, then you’re a racist, sexist, misogynist ablest asshole. You’re not left-wing enough and are part of the problem. You also need to use words like “white male privilege” on a regular basis. Okay, that was a joke. I have used that expression on occasion, but I think some people on the left use it to the point that it’s a meaningless cliche.
Don’t get me wrong– I’m well aware that there are still problems with racism, sexism, and ableism. I’m also aware that there are minorities who haven’t been given enough opportunities, let alone credit, in many intellectual fields. Most of my intellectual “heroes” (in quotes because they’re people, not literal heroes!) are white men. Is it possible that UNCONSCIOUSLY I’m rejecting other great voices because they’re not white men? I doubt it, but it’s possible. Checking in with friends and family– and oneself– once in a while and asking, “Hey, are you sure you don’t like what she has to say because she’s a woman?” or “Do you think you would listen to that guy more if he were white instead of black?” is a very important, positive and constructive activity and helps us to become more aware of our unconscious biases– which EVERYBODY has, whether or not they would like to admit it. However, when it reaches a point that people are called names for not having enough minorities on their “hero” list, reject the term “rape culture” as too simplistic of a label for a society that has a rape problem, or are labeled in other ways, then what could be a very constructive conversation turns into a flame war– online and in real life.
That’s my little rant. Thank you for your time. Now start thinking. Please.
Addendum: I have no doubt that some people are going to want to make a list of some of the things that Richard Dawkins has said that were not prudent and use that as evidence of him being a racist, misogynist, [insert accusation here], person. So I’ll save you the trouble and address the issue myself: I have news for you. People say things all the time that get misunderstood. Sometimes it’s a genuine miscommunication, and other times it’s just a stupid thing to say. That’s life. Get over it. Everyone is guilty of it. My father said something really stupid recently. He said that people who cut themselves do it to get attention. Um, wow. That was a pretty stupid and ignorant thing to say, but that doesn’t make him mental-illness-o-phobic. It means he just doesn’t get it. He told me that he had read this “fact” in a textbook in college. I reminded Dad that he went to college in the late ’60s/early ’70s and psychologists didn’t know much about anything then. So I had to educate Dad and explain to him that people who cut (I haven’t done it but have known people who have) are in a lot of mental pain and are taking out their rage in a very unfortunate way. While SOME might do it to get attention, they are the exception, not the rule.
Good thing Dad isn’t famous. They would have called the incident Cuttergate.
I have a family member who is an English teacher. This parody paper that I wrote and gave to her for Christmas 2000 is, sadly, not far removed from the types of papers she gets from her students on a regular basis. Click on each thumbnail to see a larger image of the page.
Following the introduction of a new law outlawing menstruation passed last month by President Rick Santorum, all American women were ordered to have sexual relations with their husbands, boyfriends, or male friends/acquaintances, or go to sperm banks to ensure fertilization of their next egg. Failure to do so could result in a fine of up to $100,000 plus up to 45 years in prison.
“So many eggs… that have the potential to become human beings, are being flushed down the toilet or absorbed in sanitary napkins every month,” said recently elected American President, Rick Santorum. “It disgusts me that so many babies are being killed every month. Imagine that your 25-year-old daughter has been getting her period for 14 years. That’s at least 168 babies that have been tragically killed. This cannot go on. God will not stand for it. In fact, His purpose for making women menstruate is so they can see the blood of these poor babies being passed into the toilet.”
Women were given a month in which to get their latest egg or eggs fertilized or face murder charges.
“A month is more than ample time,” said Santorum. “If you can’t find a way to fertilize that egg in that amount of time, then you’re a murderer—plain and simple. We need to start choosing life.”
The passing of the new law was met with outrage when pro-choice groups demanded to know why their daughters, some as young as ten, had to get pregnant.
“I don’t want my ten-year-old daughter to have to get pregnant already,” said a Philadelphia mother whose daughter just got her first period in February. “No kid that age should have to carry a baby around for nine months. It’s bad enough this new law will require her to do it every year until menopause.”
When asked if masturbation and nocturnal emissions are murder, as millions of sperm are wasted at a time, Santorum said, “Yes, it is murder. Masturbation is a sin. If I could outlaw it, I would. But I can’t. And nocturnal emissions? That can’t be helped. You can’t help what you do in your sleep.”
Many people responded in outrage at Santorum’s implication that menstruation should be easy enough to prevent whereas nocturnal emissions “can’t be helped,” and that he can do “very little to outlaw [masturbation].”
“Why don’t either of Rick Santorum’s older daughters have children?” asked a San Francisco woman who asked not to be identified. “Are they sterile, or are they just murderers?”
When this question was asked again by a New Yorker at a recent press conference, Santorum refused to comment.
MENSTRUATING WOMAN CHARGED WITH MURDER, POSSESSING TAMPONS
(San Francisco, CA)
October 21st, 2015
It started with a landmark act that was passed over two years ago by President Rick Santorum, a law outlawing menstruation and requiring women to fertilize every egg that they release from menarche until menopause. Anybody in violation of this law could be convicted of murder.
For the most part, women don’t want to spend the rest of their lives in prison— or have to submit to the death penalty—and thus followed the law with surprisingly little protest. Those who didn’t agree moved to Canada.
“Good riddance,” said Santorum, when asked what he thought of women who moved to Canada to avoid arrest. “We don’t need vermin like that here. We’re a good, God-fearing Christian nation, and I intend to keep it that way.”
However, Jane Smith, 25, was arrested last week on charges that she obtained illegal birth control, stopped getting pregnant, and started menstruating. Her sister, Jessica, immediately alerted police when she discovered boxes of condoms, birth control pills, and tampons in the cabinet under the sink in Jane’s bathroom.
Smith, of San Francisco, is a mother of four and should have been pregnant with her fifth child by now. When questioned by police, she broke down in tears.
“I already have four kids, and they’re hard enough to control,” said Smith. “I can’t handle any more, and I can’t deal with postpartum depression. I just don’t ever want to be pregnant again.”
Smith was ordered held without bail when she confessed that she didn’t want to have any more children. Her four kids were immediately placed in foster care.
“If she willingly kills a defenseless little egg,” said Federal Judge Hubert Jones, “who’s to say where she’ll draw the line? Who’s to say she won’t murder her own kids if she doesn’t want them anymore? This is a very dangerous situation.”
If convicted, Smith faces life in prison without the possibility of parole. Some prosecutors are also seeking the death penalty.
TEN-YEAR-OLD GIRL LOOKING AT POSSIBLE LIFE SENTENCE, DEATH PENALTY
(Corpus Christi, TX)
March 25th, 2017
A ten-year-old girl who got her period for the first time last week refuses to get her next egg fertilized. U.S. law, following President Rick Santorum’s 2013 national ban on menstruation, requires that all girls, following their first period, immediately arrange to get their next egg fertilized. They are required to fertilize every egg they release until they reach menopause.
“It’s a shame we can’t figure out when a girl will get her first period,” Santorum had said when the law was first passed. “Otherwise we would require girls to fertilize the very first egg they release. It’s a shame to see human life get flushed down the toilet like that, even if just once in the woman’s lifetime.”
President Santorum, who has just begun his second term in office, is hoping that science will find a way to determine menarche so girls will waste no time in getting pregnant. “There should be a way,” he says. “I have faith that God will guide us towards that.”
All other girls who have begun menstruating are wasting no time in getting pregnant—the punishment for menstruation is life in prison without chance of parole, or the death penalty.
Linda Stevenson, 10, of Corpus Christi, Texas, just got her first period last week and insists she’s not ready to get pregnant.
“I don’t want to… you know… do it with a guy. That kinda scares me,” said Stevenson. “My mom didn’t do it until she was in college.”
This particular fear instilled in girls today is of increasing concern, but President Santorum has said several times that sexual activity isn’t necessary, that one can go to a sperm bank instead in order to get pregnant.
“That still freaks me out,” said the girl. “And I don’t want to have to carry a baby around for 9 months and then have to take care of it. Why can’t I just ride bikes with my friends like my mom did when she was a kid?”
“Of course someone would say something like that,” says Santorum with a shake of his head. “It’s the temptation of the Devil, not the path to Christ. The path to Christ involves doing things that you don’t always want to do. But that’s an important lesson of Christianity, that hardship and suffering brings you closer to Christ. And one key rule in the Bible is to be fruitful and multiply.”
“Doesn’t the Bible also say that doing it before you’re married is a sin?” asked Stevenson, knowing that many girls her age would be having sex in order to satisfy the anti-menstruation law.
That is a question that many people are afraid to ask. Santorum declined to comment.
Linda Stevenson has been ordered to go to a sperm bank in time for her next ovulation or face life imprisonment or even the death penalty.
“We can’t afford to lose any precious human life,” Santorum said. “We need to nip this in the bud and get on the path to Christ before judgment day when it will be too late.”