Human nature

RAPED: A Male Survivor Breaks His Silence

RAPED: A Male Survivor Breaks His Silence (1995)

By: Fred Pelka

____________________
Editorial Note: I did not write this. I read this a long time ago, in my undergraduate years, and it was powerful then. With time it has become only more powerful. All of the issues mentioned here are more pressing now that ever before and this story is not one that should be hidden away behind academic paywalls. This is a dose of reality that we really need. Please read and share.

– AP

____________________

9595818-mmmain2.jpg

The man who raped me had a remarkable self assurance which could only have come from practice. He picked me up just outside Cleveland, heading east in a van filled with construction equipment. That early morning in May I’d already spent a sleepless 24 hours trying to hitchhike from Oxford, Mississippi to Buffalo, New York, so it felt good when I was offered a ride through the western fringe of Pennsylvania. First, though, the driver told me he needed to stop along the way, to pick up some building supplies. We drove to a country club undergoing renovation, where I hung out with his co-workers while he signed for several boxes of equipment which we carried back to his van. Getting back onto the turnpike he told me about one more stop he had to make.

As a man, I’ve been socialized never to admit to being vulnerable, to discuss those moments when I wasn’t in control. I know also how women and children are routinely punished when they speak out about abuse, how they are blamed for their own victimization. The examples are endless: Witness the contempt with which Anita Hill was treated. For these reasons and more I’m still reticent, years after it happened, to recount what happened to me that day in Ohio. This article marks the first time in 15 years I have publicly discussed it under my own name. The second building seemed deserted. We went up a flight of stairs, down a corridor into a side room. I looked around for the equipment he’d mentioned, and noticed him locking the door behind us. He slugged me before I could react, forced me down with his hands around my throat. As I began to lose consciousness I heard him say, “If you scream, if you make one wrong move, I’ll kill you.”

The police told me later that the man who raped me was a suspect in the rapes of at least six other young men.

The police told me later that the man who raped me was a suspect in the rapes of at least six other young men. During the assault his mood swung from vicious, when he promised to strangle me or break my neck, to self-pity, when he wept because we were both among “the wounded ones.” In that enormous calm that comes after the acceptance of death, I wondered who would find my body.

Most rapes don’t happen like this. Most victims know their attacker(s) — he is a neighbor, friend, husband, or father, a teacher, minister or doctor. The vast majority of rapes are committed by men against women and children, and the FBI estimates that anywhere from 80 to 90 percent go unreported. Rape is an integral part of our culture, and fully one third of all women in this country will be raped at some point in their lives. But this sexist violence does occasionally spill over onto boys and men. The National Crime Survey for 1989 estimated that one in 12 rape survivors is male.

For all this, nobody really knows how many men are raped each year, or how many boys are sexually abused. One study at the University of New Hampshire found that one in 11 young men surveyed had been sexually abused before their 18th birthday. I’ve seen articles which speculate that anywhere from one in nine to one in seven men will be raped or sexually abused in their lifetime, most often by other males, but these are little more than guesses.

“Since rape is generally misconstrued to be a sexually motivated crime,” writes Dr. A. Nicholas Groth and Anne Wolbert Burgess, “it is generally assumed that males are unlikely targets of such victimization, and then when it does occur, it reflects a homosexual orientation on the part of the offender. However, the causes of male rape that we have had an opportunity to study do not lend much support to either assumption.” Groth and Burgess interviewed men in the community who had been raped, and men who admitted to raping other men, and published their findings in the American Journal of Psychiatry. In half the cases they studied, the gender of the victim “did not appear to be of specific significance” to the rapist. “Their victims included males and females, adults and children,” and “may symbolize…something they want to conquer or defeat. The assault is an act of retaliation, an expression of power, and an assertion of their strength or manhood.”

In half the cases they studied, the gender of the victim “did not appear to be of specific significance” to the rapist. “Their victims included males and females, adults and children,” and “may symbolize…something they want to conquer or defeat. The assault is an act of retaliation, an expression of power, and an assertion of their strength or manhood.”

In their article, Burgess and Groth dispute some of the prevalent myths about male rape. The first is that men simply don’t get raped, at least not outside prison. Of course, if men don’t get raped then what happened to me either wasn’t rape (the police asking, “Did you come?”), or I’m not a man (my male friends wanting to know how I could “let something like this” happen to me). The second myth — that all men who are raped or rape other men are gay—is a product of our culture’s homophobia, and our ignorance of the realities of sexual violence. Most people find it difficult to understand why a straight man would rape another straight man. But if you see rape as a way of exerting control, of confirming your own power by disempowering others, then it makes perfect sense. If it makes you feel powerful and macho to force sex on a woman or child, think of how much more powerful you feel raping another man.

“I have a special place,” the man who raped me said after a long while. “It’s out in the country, where we can make all the noise we want.” It seemed obvious what would happen to me once we arrived at “his special place,” but I knew there was no hope for my survival as long as we stayed in that room. So I agreed to go with him to “the country.” I promised not to try to escape. It is perhaps an indication of his fragile hold on reality that he believed me.

We walked back to his van and drove away. I waited until I saw some people, then jumped as we slowed to make a turn, rolling as I hit the pavement. I ran into the nearest building — a restaurant — just as patrons were finishing their lunch. Conversation stopped, and I was confronted by a roomful of people, forks raised in mid-bite, staring.

“I think you’d better call the police,” I told the waitress. This was all I could say, placing my hands flat on the counter between us to control their trembling. She poured me a cup of black coffee. And then the police arrived.

The two detectives assigned to my case conformed to the standard good cop^ad cop archetype. The good cop told me how upset he’d seen “girls” become after being raped. “But you’re a man, this shouldn’t bother you.” Later on he told me that the best thing to do would be to pull up my pants “and forget it ever happened.” The bad cop asked me why my hair was so long, what was I doing hitchhiking at seven o’clock in the morning? Why were my clothes so dirty? Did I do drugs? Was I a troublemaker?

I used to be puzzled at how the bad cop obviously didn’t believe me, in spite of the fact that, by his own account, in the months before my assault six other men had come to him with similar stories. Then I heard of the Dahmer case in Milwaukee, how in May 1991 Dahmer’s neighbors saw him chasing a naked 14year-old boy, bleeding from the anus, through the alley behind their building. The responding officers returned the boy to Dahmer’s apartment, where Dahmer explained that this was just a lover’s spat, which the police believed in spite of the youth’s apparent age, and the photos scattered on Dahmer’s floor of murdered and mutilated boys and men. The police reassured a neighbor who called again, saying that everything was all right — this at the very moment Dahmer was murdering Konerak Sinthasomphone. Afterwards Dahmer dismembered Sinthasomphone’s body.

411fd9_048fa7b0f43d433e8a7a1164503fb397~mv2.jpgKonerak Sinthasomphone (1976-1991)

Sinthasomphone was one of at least 17 boys and men raped and murdered by Dahmer, their body parts stored in vats and freezers in his apartment. It was reported that his first assaults were committed in Ohio, so I had to brace myself before I could look at Jeffrey Dahmer’s photo in the paper. At first I was relieved to find that he was not the man who raped me. Then I thought how this meant my assailant is likely still out there, looking for more “wounded ones.”

Because I gave them such detailed information — the country club, the name painted on the side of his van — the detectives were able to locate my assailant not too many hours after I was brought into their precinct. The good cop asked, after I identified the rapist, whether I wanted to press charges. He explained how I’d have to return to Ohio to appear before a grand jury, and then return again for the trial, how the newspapers would publish my name, how little chance there was of a conviction.

“He says you seduced him,” the good cop said. “So it’s your word against his.” The bad cop glared at me when I told them there was no way I wanted any of this to be made public. “You mean,” he fumed, “I wasted my whole afternoon on this shit?” Standing in front of me with an expression of disgust, he asked, “How do you think this makes me feel?”

By then it was getting dark. I hitchhiked the remaining 200 miles home, studying every movement of every man who offered me a ride. I arrived at my apartment after midnight, walking the last 10 miles.

In the weeks that followed the assault, every stupid, insensitive thing I’d ever said about rape came back to haunt me. A friend of mine had been attacked several months earlier, also while hitchhiking. She told me just a few hours after it happened how she’d missed her bus, and didn’t want to be late to work. She said the man offering her a lift seemed normal enough, even “nice.”

“You should’ve waited for the next bus,” I lectured. Today I cringe at my arrogance. Hitchhiking, like walking alone after dark, or feeling safe on a date, at work, at home, is another perquisite to which only men are entitled. How dare she not understand the limits of her freedom?

While women tell me that the possibility of rape is never far from their minds, most men never give it a first, let alone a second, thought. This may explain why they react so negatively to accounts by male survivors. To see rape as “a women’s issue” is a form of male privilege most men would prefer not to surrender. They would rather believe that they can move with immunity through the toxic atmosphere of violence and fear they and their compatriots create. Being a male survivor meant I’d lost some of that immunity. No wonder I felt as if I’d been poisoned, as if I were drowning.

For years I pretended, as per the good cop’s recommendation, that nothing had happened, secretly feeling that I was somehow responsible, somehow less masculine. The turning point came with the media storm that swirled up around the Big Dan rape in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The movie “The Accused” is based on that incident — a woman assaulted in a bar while other men looked on and cheered. Naive as I was, I figured this was a pretty clear-cut case. Where the police might have doubted my will to resist (no broken bones, no massive lacerations), here was a victim overpowered by half a dozen men. How could anyone doubt that she had been brutalized? Yet, during the trial, The Boston Herald ran the front page headline “SHE LED US ON!” I realized then that, even had I been murdered, someone would have inevitably questioned my complicity: “He probably liked rough sex.”

Meme.jpg

Spreading doubt: Meme circulated online 2013-2016

It’s just this sort of victim-blaming that discourages survivors from reporting their trauma, or seeking treatment, but there are other factors which may discourage males in particular. Homophobia for one: The sort of gender McCarthyism that labels any man a faggot who cannot or will not conform to accepted norms of masculine feeling or behavior. Men who rape other men capitalize on this, knowing that straight victims don’t want to appear gay, and gay victims might fear coming out of the closet. Groth and Burgess report, for instance, that “a major strategy used by some offenders…is to get the victim to ejaculate.” This “strategy” was attempted in roughly half the cases they studied, and in half of those the rapist succeeded in ejaculating his victim. This confuses the victim, who often misidentifies ejaculation with orgasm. It confirms for the rapist the old canard about how victims “really want it.” And, as Groth and Burgess say, it leaves the survivor “discouraged from reporting the assault for fear his sexuality may be suspect.”

For male survivors of child sexual abuse there is also the unfortunate theory that boys who are abused inevitably grow up to be men who rape. One survivor told me it was for this reason he had decided never to be a father. Not that he’d ever wanted to abuse children, nor was there any evidence he ever would. He eventually came to realize that because some rapists are themselves survivors doesn’t mean that all male survivors of child sexual abuse turn out to be rapists. Finally, rape-crisis centers, the only institutions in our society founded expressly to help rape survivors, are identified by some men as hotbeds of feminism, and many men take “feminist” to mean “man-hating.” It’s true that the vast majority of rape crisis counselors are women, that the entire stop-rape movement is an extension of the women’s movement. For the record, though, I have never felt any hostility in response when calling a rape crisis center, this in spite of the fact that RCCs are often plagued by “hotline abusers” — men who call to masturbate to the sound of a female voice.

Finally, rape-crisis centers, the only institutions in our society founded expressly to help rape survivors, are identified by some men as hotbeds of feminism, and many men take “feminist” to mean “man-hating.” It’s true that the vast majority of rape crisis counselors are women, that the entire stop-rape movement is an extension of the women’s movement.

On the other hand, I’ve run across a good deal of hostility towards women from male survivors with whom I’ve talked. One man told me how certain he was that the counselors at his local RCC hated men, even though, by his own admission, he’d never called, and knew no one who had. A while back I attended a survivors’ conference organized by a Boston women’s group, attended by several hundred women and maybe a dozen men. One of these men stood up during a plenary session to shout at the women on the podium. As an incest survivor, he said, he felt “marginalized” and “oppressed” by the way the conference was run, despite the fact that a number of the workshops were specifically geared toward males, and that a keynote speaker received a standing ovation when he described his work with boys and men. Some male survivors even blame women for the denial and homophobia they encounter after their assault. They openly resent the (pitifully few) resources available to female survivors, as if any help women receive is at the expense of men. Even Geraldo has picked up this theme: His show on male survivors ended with an attack on rape crisis centers for their alleged refusal to acknowledge male victimization.

This hostility has been exacerbated by the so-called men’s movement, the Robert Bly/mythopoetic crowd, with their “Wild Man” and “Inner Warrior” archetypes. These men say a lot of absurd things about sexual violence, not the least of which is that “just as many men get raped as women.” This last statement is often repeated by Chris Harding, editor of Wingspan, which The Boston Globe calls “the bible of the new men’s movement.” Harding is generally quick to add that most of these rapes “occur in prison” — a statement which is as inaccurate as it is pernicious, assuming as it does that a disproportionate number of male rapes are committed by working-class and minority men. The men’s movement claims that rape is a “gender-neutral issue,” and thus has nothing to do with sexism.

What is ironic about all this is that what little acknowledgement there is of male victimization generally comes from the women’s stop-rape movement. To the extent that male survivors can tell their stories, it is because of the foundation laid by feminists. So this woman-bashing is as ungrateful as it is gratuitous.

10993443_1615495311995429_141580936895239810_n.jpg

Misplaced Anger: Meme circulated by a ‘Men’s Rights’ Advocacy group.

One source of confusion appears to be the distinction between victimization and oppression. Male survivors charge that feminists see rape as a “man vs. woman” issue, emphasizing the central role male violence plays in stunting and destroying women’s lives, and they’re right. The distinction is that while many women, and some men, are victimized by rape, all women are oppressed by it, and any victimization of women occurs in a context of oppression most men simply do not understand. Rape for men is usually a bizarre, outrageous tear in the fabric of reality. For women, rape is often a confirmation of relative powerlessness, of men’s contempt for women, and its trauma is reinforced every day in a thousand obvious and subtle ways.

For myself, I don’t need for rape to be gender neutral to feel validated as a male survivor. And I certainly don’t need to denigrate women, or to attack feminists, to explain why I was abused by the (male) police, ridiculed by my (male) friends, and marginalized by the (male dominated) society around me. It is precisely because we have been “reduced” to the status of women that other men find us so difficult to deal with. It was obvious to me at the police station that I was held in contempt because I was a victim — feminine, hence perceived as less masculine. Had I been an accused criminal, even a rapist, chances are I would have been treated with more respect, because I would have been seen as more of a man. To cross that line, to become victims of the violence which works to circumscribe the lives of women, marks us somehow as traitors to our gender. Being a male rape survivor means I no longer fit our culture’s neat but specious definition of masculinity, as one empowered, one always in control. Rather than continue to deny our experience, male survivors need to challenge that definition.

As Diana E.H. Russell says in The Politics of Rape, “Women must start talking about rape: Their experiences, their fears, their thoughts. The silence about rape must be broken.

The same must be true for men. And so I offer this article as my first contribution to that effort.

I’ve been back to northern Ohio exactly once in the 15 years following that day. Seven years ago I was traveling from Boston to Chicago with a car full of friends. It was early morning, and I was sleeping in the back seat when we pulled off the highway, and steered onto a street that looked oddly, disturbingly familiar. Rubbing my eyes, I felt an unsettling sense of deja vu. And then I remembered. “Time for some coffee,” the driver said, and I wondered then if we would eat breakfast at that same restaurant, if I would meet that same waitress. We didn’t, and I chose not to tell my companions what had happened to me all those years ago.

Today I think I might be less disconcerted. Today I think I just might have told them what happened.

Originally published (1995) in Patricia Searles and Ronald J. Berger, [eds.] Rape and Society, by: San Francisco: Westview.

Further Reading

A Reply to Lauren Southern’s “Why I’m not a Feminist” by Jenna Christian in Everyday Geopolitics Huston (2015)
__________

Men’s rights activists, gathering to discuss all the ways society has done them wrong by Monica Hesse in The Washington Post (2013)

__________

I Was a Men’s Rights Activist by: Edwin Hodge in MEL Magazine (2016)

Advertisements

The best thing to come out of Brexit and the Trump victory [and some music]

untitled-1

Stupid, stupid, people. A denial of democracy isn’t authoritarianism. It’s complacency. The democratic slogan for every election should be “if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

I posted the above on social media the day after the outcome of the American election was publicized, and since then I feel increasingly like I need to clarify this post. The conversations that post sparked made it seem as if people think that I was arguing that low voter turnout was the only issue that decided the outcome of the Trump/Clinton race.

Fact is, many people reacted this way tells us something about how people are thinking. It seems like everyone wants this whole election outcome to be pinned down by one explanation. It was the media; it was Russian intervention; it was middle class discontentment; lies; corruption; a grand conspiracy.

cg5459a2b718634

Voter participation is an issue, and it was certainly a factor. But it is far from the only factor. Democratic engagement with politics and vote value have been a hobby horse of mine for years since being exposed to the alternative first hand. But, it is not the only reason Trump won. Just to make my position clear, like with everything else, this outcome was the result of a combination of factors. Media landscape and engagement, social media, political marketing, charisma, the left-right divide, the economic and geo-political circumstances, reactionary populism (from both sides), the rise of individualist identity politics, culture, class, authoritarian militarism (both sides of politics), neoliberalism and many other real and complicated elements converged to deliver this result.

All of these factors have to be considered in thinking about the outcome. I get bummed out when people chose not to vote, but voting doesn’t solve any problems alone – it’s just a useful mechanic for societal transformation. Also, to me, the most valuable function of voting participation is that it gauges the level of interaction between the public and the political sphere. And it always makes me sad to see when that gap when it grows wider.

Aside from all the endemic issues Trump and Brexit illuminated, the big thing these phenomenal events proved was the power of the vote. That, despite any efforts from the establishment and regardless of how entrenched the people in power may appear, at least in England and America (I think in Australia and many other democratic nations as well) people’s participation in voting, or lack there of, has a massive impact on the political process.

For everyone who might despair at the results of these processes, this is an important silver lining. My annoyance at abstention is based on my deep commitment to the democratic process. Imperfect as it might be, it’s much better than dictatorship. This may be cliché: but I love the freedom that it offers. The important thing to remember is that democracy requires work and participation.

And that is the bitter pill. Keeping politicians honest is actually the job of the public in the democratic system. Again, we return to the notion of political participation. In the wake of this election, allegations came out about mass corruption within the American political system. The involvement of big money and corporate influence were pointed to as massive rots in the system – the reason to shake things up and bring around change. People were keen to be involved in this process of exposure and a million sources suddenly came to light.

Though a great deal of the information that was published was either blatantly false or politically framed in bias, much of it was true. Trump was seen to be delivering the public ‘The Truth’ about the system. Except, NONE of this is new. Hillary is following a trajectory of American politics that has been ‘exposed’ many times in the past. People have been campaigning about corporate involvement, the unfair projection of military power and the delivery of promises the 60s and before. These people have even pushed into the mainstream. Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Joel Bakan, Naomi Klein, Adam Curtis, John Pilger and others made public appeals in the media and in press in open and accessible ways. The press ran endless stories and exposed corruption and corporate influence regularly. Academics in the field published books and articles and campaigned to draw public attention. In the 90s, top charted bands spoke about issues that resonate with contemporary realities – geo-politics, corruption, racism, sexism, freedom and democracy. And they did it with emotion and directness that makes the ‘edgy’ /pol kids of today seem tame in comparison.

While the music got play, when it came to the message, very few people listened. Perhaps what’s different in this election is that people have been pointed to it for the first time by dire economic circumstances – now that life is hard the folks are looking for someone to blame.

As a long time liberal humanist and democrat the current circumstances call for mixed feelings. To be honest, under ordinary circumstances, I’d be overjoyed at [anti establishment, Hillary] allegations gaining traction in the public realm. Right now, I’m more than a bit worried. This information is being offered for a reason. Those mentioned above worked to expose these issues because they held aspirations of fixing the system. They were speaking to the public with faith in the idea that political power could be taken back by the public. When this information is broadcast now, by the Trump campaign there is a different purpose – the attainment of political power. The aim was to shift the blame. The story is that politicians are bad. It resonates and appeals to previously held popular ideas. But this corrupt and ‘broken’ system has been widely supported by a previously disinterested public. When the public was given news about all of this before Trump, nobody listened. When 9/11 happened that same people calling foul about the war now were first to condemn investigations of this type as unpatriotic. When the global financial system collapsed in 2008, public pressure for prosecution quickly evaporated.

Most people wanted news that was either fluffy or talked about their immediate fears. There are hundreds of books and articles by academics and news reporters on all of these issues, articles that only 1% of the population has ever picked up. This complacency is in large part to blame. The process that lead the US political system to this state took many steps, and the public never held the establishment to account long enough to change the trajectories of power.

We do need change – but we also need to be careful about our information and act with public good and democracy in mind. I just hope people remember this and work for greater transparency and democratic accountability after this farcical election. Now, that the power of the vote and its capacity to bring about revolutions are clearly demonstrated, and the ills of the old system are still in the public mind, is a big chance for us to get involved. To imagine how we want to make things better and engage. To remember what we learned and not to turn away in disappointment or satisfaction, or worse yet, turn on each other.

The work of democracy is never done. People really do have the power, we just need to have the will. The best thing about the surprise election results of this year is that we KNOW it can be done.

How about some music?

Here’s a niche artist, MACKLEMORE. You might not have heard this song, cos it’s a little political. But then, have you actually looked into the politics of his music?

Classic folk lyrists, Ani DeFranco, delivers a poem that ranges from political to immediate.

Let’s take a trip back in time. You’ve heard this song a million times as a movies soundtrack… but have you actually paused to listen to the lyrics?

A little bit of soul from Middle America. Country is all about breakups, pickups and whiskey, right?

2Pac is famous…

What was 2Pac talking about? Everyone gets the same service… No, they don’t. Sometimes 911 is a joke.  Sad thing is, not much has changed since the 90s.

I’d love to hear your picks. I need me a good political playlist.

A Reply to Lauren Southern’s “Why I’m Not a Feminist”

If you have an opinion on feminism, you need to know this.

Wonderful and rare space where an academic meets popular misconception.

Everyday Geopolitics Houston

Dear Lauren,

In the last couple days, I have seen your video “Why I’m Not a Feminist” pop up a few times. In the video, you describe why you are not a feminist. At the heart of your message is the assertion, “I am not a feminist because I believe both genders should be treated equally.” Setting aside for a moment the problems with your assumption that gender can be reduced to a binary of male/female (here’s a decent introduction to that if you want), I want to talk about the misinformation you offer in your video: misinformation about feminist activism and scholarship, and misinformation about domestic violence and rape. I don’t often find engaging in these types debates online to be the most fruitful use of my energies, since people that produce anti-feminist content generally are not very open to meaningful engagement with feminist thought, however I’ve been stewing over your…

View original post 4,409 more words

Arguing online and cognative closure

Why do you waste your time and energy arguing with people on social media? You’re not learning anything from that echo chamber!

Internet_argument.jpg

If you’ve been subjected this argument/accusation because of your tendency to engage online here is some good news. A quantitative study published in the Journal of Social Media Studies suggests that the opposite is true. Those who engage in discussion are exposed to a broader spectrum of views than those who simply read a preferred source of traditional media. Those who engage in two sided conversation are also more likely to change their minds on an existing issue.

The key is engagement. If the social media user is broadcasting opinion or ideas from a news source (like many organized trolls – I’m looking at you, 4chan) with no interest in deeper understanding, or simply insulting or deflecting opposition, they’re not really learning much.

Internet+arguments+this+is+pretty+much+how+it+happens+also_43504c_4412698.jpg

But if you question, listen and argue (even with somebody who doesn’t change their mind) YOU are likely to be looking to broaden your horizons. While those who think it’s a waste of time might just not be keen to challenge their own worldview.
Notably, information-seeking motivations was a positive predictor of cross-cutting discussion, but a negative predictor of cross-cutting exposure. This finding indicates that those who utilize SNS for political information are actually less exposed to diverse views. The most plausible psychological mechanism to explain this counter-intuitive finding may be selective exposure; it might be that those who closely follow political news via SNS tend to seek consonant information by friending or following like- minded people or news sources they prefer. This suggests the possibility of SNS functions as homogeneous “echo chambers” where diverse views are hard to find as a result of political fragmentation. However, even for these consonant information-seekers, engaging in cross-cutting political discussion has a strong deliberation effect such that they are significantly more likely to change their original views and get more involved in the issue of discussion than those who are not engaged in cross-cutting discussion.

Cause and effect would be difficult to establish. Does arguing on the internet make you more inquisitive? Or are the arguments symptom of your inquisitive tendencies? Don’t know. The the answer is likely to be, as always, a little bit of both.

tumblr_mme54mwfdq1r8rauqo1_500

Body Shame, Neoliberalism and Rhetoric

I’ve been reading about how bodies (as in, your body) and neo-liberal politics (like those of your government) interweave. I think its really important. Governments convince us of their plans and ideas by telling us stories with very specific language. Sometimes these tricks are transparent and silly, other times they are hidden and subliminal. When they work, we get the message without even realizing that we got it. In politics, these are called social narratives. There are tonnes of examples in how language is used to change the message. Kinda like economic and political refugees became ‘boat people’ and then ‘queue jumpers’, then, in the language of folks like Donald Trump ‘rapists’ and ‘terrorists’. This is where things get really scary and insidious.

One really clever trick of neo-liberal policy is shame. This is stolen from the Advertising industry. Advertising gives us images of beauty that most of us physically can’t meet then shames us into consuming stuff with the promise of reaching that impossible ideal (like surgery, gym memberships, cosmetics, shampoos, etc). This is the idea of ‘body shame’ and the advertising industry uses the language of ‘health’ and personal responsibility to sell their product. The neo-liberals use it to sell their agenda. We can all agree that most of us can do things to be more healthy. We can’t control everything, but generally, we can eat well, exercise, meditate or do a whole bunch of other things to make ourselves healthier and fitter. There is a level of personal responsibility involved. Like advertisers, the neo-liberal system uses the language of health to push aside real reasons behind peoples economic difficulties. It promotes the idea of discipline and merit as the only reason that a member of the public might be in economic strife.

Obviously, this isn’t true. I’m a migrant, and I saw from the experience friends and family how substantial an obstacle an accent can be when a person is looking for work. Or how difficult it can be to get that gig if you can’t afford a suit for that interview or the fare for the bus to get to the job. Countless studies show that class, race and sex play into economic success in major ways. This is a truth that is so well documented it is impossible to deny. It is very inconvenient to the neo-liberal world view. Since denial is impossible, the task becomes to silence the complaint. To get people to not talk about the real issues that challenge the neo-liberal ideal. The solution that is used is shame. If personal responsibility is drawn in, people can’t help but feel that their failures are their fault. Talking about it directly is bad, because if the neo-liberal establishment comes out and directly accuses everyone of their failure people will talk back about circumstance… an argument that wouldn’t play out well. So, instead the analogies begin. The reasoning goes, most people already have body shame, lets move this shame into the political realm:

“Neo-liberalism is a political rationality that tries to render the social domain economic and to link a reduction in (welfare) state services and security systems to the increasing call for ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘self-care’. In this way, we can decipher the neoliberal harmony in which not only the individual body, but also collective bodies and institutions (public administrations, universities, etc.), corporations and states have to be ‘lean’, ‘fit’, ‘flexible’ and ‘autonomous’: it is a technique of power.”

The genius of this is that it implicitly turns people into fat. If you get messed over by an unjust social or political system, clearly the system is to blame. If that system is ‘fit’, ‘lean’ and ‘healthy’ the whole thing turns on you – you are the waste, fat and decay. A trick of language that effects our thinking.

https://i1.wp.com/connieville.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/shame.jpg

While there is always a level of personal responsibility for health AND ones place on the ladder of economic success, this tactic is designed to swing that balance into the realm of impossible ideals. In reality we know not elements of health can be controlled. Illness is conditional and inherent as much as it is controllable. So is economic success. We can’t all be Steve Jobs, because we don’t have his specific skills, networks and privilege, just like we can’t all look like Scarlett Johansson because we don’t have her bone structure. Nor can we all swim like Ian Thrope because we don’t have his body type and his big feet. We need to understand the rhetorical weapons used to sell dangerous ideas. Otherwise, we reach the increasingly common reality: people start to fall by the wayside because of their circumstance and we are all too ashamed to talk about the true nature of their, and our, social troubles.

Peace.

The quote is from: ‘The birth of biopolitics’: Michel Foucault’s lecture at the Collège de France on neo-liberal governmentality Translated by Thomas Lemke

Us and them: australian politics and the rhetoric of ‘lifters and leaners’

Words matter. As an anthropologist, it is my job to derive meaning from the words and actions of human beings. Today I realized that through his countless verbal gaffs our bumbling Prime Minister is offering us a direct pathway into his worldview.

Like our primate cousins, humans are inherently tribalistic mammals. It is instinct to divide ourselves into groups based on empathy and similarity – ‘us’ versus ‘them’. We have difficulty relating to ‘them’. We tend to think of ourselves as inherently good and not think of the others at all. ‘They’ are less human to ‘us’ – in anthropology this is called ethnocentrism. Fortunately, unlike our primate cousins, we have a uniquely developed frontal cortex that gives us the capacity for abstract thinking. Abstraction allows humans to override our biological ‘monkey’ nature. We can break our tribalistic ethnocentrism. This takes energy, empathy and focus.

A little while ago Tony Abbot (Australian current conservative head of state) used the word ‘Holocaust’ to punctuate his political rhetoric. When confronted with the fact that this trivialised a horrific incident for a large section of the Australian public, his government went on the defensive – ‘we were not using the word the way the Jews do’. Makes sense, Tony isn’t Jewish. But his use of the word showed a lack of connection to that segment of the population, a lack of empathy with ‘them’. The current Liberal government has a history of this kind of ethnocentrism. The rhetoric of ‘lifters and leaners’ also divides the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Us’ being the economically well off and ‘them’ being anyone who isn’t. This is something that becomes clear when one has to consider that some highly productive vocations take time to develop. Time that is hard to put in when you have no economic support network.

When Tony was asked what he had done for women (as minister for women) he demonstrated his ethnocentrism once again, telling the public that his economic policy was his gift to a group whom he clearly fails to empathise with and understand.
There are two ways in which humanity evolves. One is a slow physiological adaptation, a process we share with all other biological entities on this planet, the other is an evolution of knowledge. This second process is the unique capacity to build and expand on the inventions and ideas of other members of our species. Our ability to internalise the thinking of our predecessors lead us away from our primate nature and allowed us to achieve technological and philosophical feats that are truly beautiful and staggering. In earlier times this made us feel ordained by god – no other creature can do what we can. We thought ourselves above the other apes, we saw ourselves as angels. This evolution is the outcome of our ability to internalise the perspectives of others, particularly others who think in radically different ways to ourselves. We built on ideas we ourselves could never have, and what we achieved is the outcome of our abstract reasoning capacity coupled with our empathy. Yet, this evolution is a fragile process. Isolate a human from the achievements of our fellow humans and we begin anew. A blank slate: naked, illiterate and ‘savage’. Our animal natures are still here, but they are counteracted by the collective intelligence of human society. We benefit from the unity of human diversity on the material, the moral, the intellectual level.
In Australia we saw a budget that delineates society into ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’. Take a moment to look behind the ideological rhetoric. The idea of putting pressure on the ‘leaners’ to ‘lift’ themselves up is a mask for simple intolerance: you don’t aspire to the same things as me? There’s something wrong with you! It is a demonisation of difference. This kind of thinking strips us of our mutual intelligence and reveals the animal inside. It makes us selfish, myopic and territorial. One of the reasons we have an amazing country is that we recognised the value of difference. We though it was worthwhile to pay a little extra to make sure a member of our community didn’t die in the street, even if her/his circumstances and outlook was different from ours. We practiced empathy. We benefitted from the resultant diversity. Politically, we took a step in a different direction. We replaced the idea of empathy based on national unity with the idea of empathy for outlook uniformity. This government is devolving Australian society. It is appealing to our primate nature. I hope you will not let yourself become an ape, I hope that you will choose to remain an angel.
The Liberal Party views are not based on malice. They are based on a lack of connection with anyone who doesn’t fit a very narrow band of ‘us’. Our Prime Minister is demonstrating his own human limitations, which would be fine if he wasn’t elected to represent the entirety of the Australian public. Here lies the problem. Doesn’t matter how much this government will promise to change or listen to ‘the people’, they will never be able to surpass their ethnocentrism. They are disconnected from anyone who isn’t like them. I have no doubt that this government will do its best to serve the Australian people. But to Tony ‘Australians’ will always be Anglo, Male, Wealthy and Christian.
Refugees? Forget about it. This government can’t relate to the majority of the Australian public, let alone people from different nations and different cultures.