|From Alberta Report, Nov. 22, 1999|
What happens the day after we publicly remember? After the social media reminders and the public declarations, how do we continue to remember?
How does memory get turned into action?
How do acts of remembering, naming, and publicly declaring those names and memories reverberate into other days, thoughts, and actions?
Here’s what I think about today: I think about what it might have felt like in 1989 to wake up to a world that said, in no uncertain terms, women are not people, that young women do not belonging classrooms.
I think about the women who have been murdered or disappeared.
I think about the lengths to which media will go to sustain the “lone shooter” fiction.
I think about empty desks in classrooms.
I think about them as I write my syllabi and work for inclusivity and diversity.
I think about them as I stand at the front of the classroom.
I think of them as I speak publicly about gender equity.
I think of them as I listen to other women speak and write and sing.
I think about things, and these women on December sixth, and I think of them on December seventh, and on December eighth. I think about them every day.
I know I probably shouldn’t be, but I am scared. When I crossed the border into Canada over American Thanksgiving last week to spend a weekend on the lake with my family, I knew my chances of not dying in a sudden mass shooting motivated by systemic racism and/or sexism increased dramatically. According to the Mass Shooting Tracker, so far in 2015 there have been 351 mass shootings in the U.S., already up from 2014’s total of 336, and numbering more than one a day. Many of these have been on university campuses, and gun watches and threats are becoming more ubiquitous: some of my Facebook friends have experienced gun threats on their campuses, causing campus closures or the horrible experience of holding class anyway, knowing you shouldn’t let domestic terrorism get to you but not quite sure how to unthink those thoughts. As I’m writing this on Mon. Nov. 30, the University of Chicago is shut down due to a gun threat. Grade schools now include mandatory emergency procedure training to prepare for the event of a mass shooting.
The most recent domestic terrorist attack has targeted Planned Parenthood, an essential health care service for low-income women who don’t have many options or choices when dealing with their own bodies within an otherwise corrupt, inadequate, and unjust health care system. While this attack stands as the natural extension of right-wing conservative pro-gun and pro-life rhetoric (as this brilliant Facebook post summarizes), tweets like this one still emerge, from Gov. Mike Huckabee, twisting the event around inside itself and somehow positioning the pro-lifers as the victims.
Meanwhile, since the Paris Attacks, Muslims all around the world have been forced to dissociate themselves from the extremist group some are arguing (to little effect, it seems) should be called Daesh, in order to further distance them from the peaceful Islamic majority. Yet as this satirical article observes, Christians are never called upon to account for or divorce their practices from terrorists like Robert Lewis Dear, who regardless of his personal convictions is part of a predominantly white Christian power structure which makes it possible to view women’s exercise of agency over their own bodies (sometimes after becoming victimized and raped) as an evil that should be squelched out from the world, perhaps with guns. American white men can be trusted with guns, the reasoning goes, but Muslims cannot, which is one of the reasons we should not let Syrian refugees into the country–because ammunition is too freely available here, and most Muslims are probably terrorists, unlike white Americans who are peaceful and never commit senseless acts of violence. We may as well follow the suggestion of the current frontrunner for Republican presidential candidate, recently featured as the host on America’s most popular and longstanding weekly comedy show, and create a database of all Muslims in the country, tracking their movements and banning them from access to guns. There was another time in history when a people-group was tagged and tracked.
To add to all of this domestic terrorism, violent misogyny, and downright fascism by prominent political leaders in the States, student protesters demanding equality and respect for people of all colours on university campuses after a series of overtly bigoted and racist acts–including at my home institution of Fordham University–are being shot at during peaceful protests, again by white supremicists who are most certainly the same kind of people who would vote Trump for President, who laugh when he mocks those with disabilities and shrug off accusations of racism with xenophobic comments about how bad the economic conditions are in this country. Because they are, that is true. And after the Paris attacks, in response to #blacklivesmatter actions continuing to grow around the countries, other high-profile bigots say stuff like this–
Now maybe the whining adolescents at our universities can concentrate on something other than their need for “safe” spaces…
— Judith Miller (@JMfreespeech) November 13, 2015
–and receive 900 likes and over 700 RTs for an idea that completely obliterates the legitimacy of those who are always already disadvantaged before they step foot on campus, let alone enter the work force. And, back on my home turf, white-power chants are heard in Fordham dormitory housing situated in the low-income, black and Latino neighborhood of the Bronx. And female students whose cab drivers attempt to rape them are denigrated as ungrateful liars and subjected to interrogation about the state of their mental health.
I care so much about all these issues, and I want my students to care too, to be active and step outside the classroom to voice their dissatisfaction within an increasingly terrifying political climate. But I know my students won’t all be on the same page as I am (let’s not forget those white power chants), and I’ve witnessed what happens to leftist feminist professors in student evaluations, upon which the future of my academic career depends.
And last week, when I attended a protest at Washington Square Park expressing solidarity with the protestor shootings in Minneapolis and the police killing of unarmed 24-yo Jamar Clark, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of fear for my own safety. Perhaps this is an irrational response, perhaps my chances of being shot in this city of eight million people is infinitesimal, but as we were chanting and waving flags, I was keeping watch over my shoulder, I was jittery.
|Photo by author from Nov. 25 Wash Sq Park protest|
Terrorism in the United States is working, and while I in no way mean to belittle analogous problems faced by Canada, still sometimes I find myself gazing longingly north…
It has been a year and a handful of days since CBC fired Jian Ghomeshi. Do you remember how the news broke? I do. I remember seeing it on Twitter first and thinking “how strange.” And then, later that evening, I recall sitting on the couch with my partner. We were both looking at Facebook — oh, modern life — and came across Ghomeshi’s long, bizarre, self-defensive post. Remember that? That’s the post in which he claimed that the CBC had fired him for his sexual preferences. I recall thinking at the time that there had to be more to the story. But even more that that, I distinctly remember thinking: how shrewd. How insightful. What a smart and deliberately pre-emptive use of social media. Rather than wait for the porous and vague language of preliminary news reports here was someone who knew the power of harnessing public opinion. Further, here was someone who knew how gender plays a powerful role in public opinion. A well-known man confessing and apologizing for his less-than-vanilla proclivities but asking for the public to respect his privacy? Wow, I thought. Very savvy.
And then the real story broke. “More to the story” turned out to be many many women. Women who had experienced varying degrees of assault and harassment in professional, private, and semi-private settings. Women who did not feel safe coming forward, and women who did. I remember listening to Lucy de Coutere be interviewed about her decision to talk publicly about her experience with Ghomeshi. I remember what she said–that she felt she could come forward, and so she did in hopes that it would make other women feel strong–but I mostly remember her voice. Confident. Assured. Strong in her own truth. And controlled. Oh, her voice was so controlled. And I remember thinking wow, this woman. This woman and her bravery. She has brought her experience into the light of the public–not a warm light, that–for the good of other people. How generous, I thought. Thank you, I thought.
And then, of course, there was more. More women, yes. And more public backlash. The women who didn’t come forward were asked why. They weren’t even recipients of the question, not usually. Rather, there was a general distrust of anonymity and silence. Why wouldn’t you come forward and seek justice, the whole country–never mind the comments sections–seemed to ask, while simultaneously failing to make a connection with the myriad risks of doing so in public.
The conversations about Ghomeshi’s years of violence were triggering. Talking and hearing about it non-stop was exhausting. And yet, it felt as though it was time for something to change. Would it lead to cities and provinces and universities and colleges taking seriously the rise of rape culture on campus? Would these conversations lead to a public recognition and outcry for an inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada? Would public opinion shift to trusting women when they say they’ve been abused?
Something else did start to happen. Women reached out to one another. Again, I saw this happen first on social media. In my town a group formed on the internet to talk about how we were dealing with this hyper public, inescapable, necessary-yet-gutting conversation about rape culture. Then, the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag went viral. Women all over the internet were claiming their experiences of violence and teaching the general public not only why a huge percentage of sexualized violence goes unreported, they were also teaching us what that feels like. They were teaching us how violence that is both individualized and systematic–it happened to me, it happened within patriarchal culture, within racist culture, and so forth — gets metabolized or internalized. They were teaching us, these women.
I worried, last year, that social media, which can be such a crucial tool for consciousness-raising, would also backfire. I worried that the onslaught of a topic gone viral would just as quickly move out of the public eye.
What I am trying to think through here is, at root, two pronged: 1) How do we as a networked public keep huge issues at the forefront of the public conscience? 2) How do we both honour and continue to grapple with the cost — both visible and invisible — of speaking openly about experiences of gendered violence?
The title of my post comes from an article that Chatelaine published last week. In it the magazine notes that
The events of that day hit like a brick to a window — a “where were you when” moment for a great many Canadians. Regardless of how Ghomeshi’s trial plays out in 2016, we’re still feeling this scandal’s repercussions a year later. It led to thousands of conversations about sexual violence, workplace harassment and abuses of power. For those at the core of it — the survivors who came forward, the CBC employees who lost their jobs and Ghomeshi’s family — the fallout is ongoing and severe. But even for many further afield — crisis workers and policymakers, journalists and former colleagues — the scandal has had a powerful, lasting effect.
Immediately after the column, I had a phone call from a very well known Canadian man with lots of connections. He said, ‘Pick a Saturday—any Saturday that doesn’t have a Santa Claus Parade on it and I’ll organize a march of the men.’ I said ‘I hope you do. I’d be willing to help.’ But I never heard from him again. It didn’t surprise me because it takes a lot of effort to alter the status quo. The Jian Ghomeshi thing was an incident — that goes on in most offices across Canada today. And who’s going to do something about it? And I don’t believe a single incident has stopped because of the Jian Ghomeshi story.
The semester began with the shadow of a threat. Under the username “Kill Feminists,” comments were made on a blogTO comments thread (now deleted), and captured by a reddit forum.
Do my feminist friends and colleagues at the U of T feel better about going to work now? Does a discredited threat neutralize the bad affects of the threat itself?
I’ve been thinking about these questions and about the shadows that fell on my first September as a professor way back in 2004. It was my first real job and I felt enormously lucky and privileged to have it. I still do. One of my courses was a large lecture course. There were about 150 students enrolled in it. To be honest, the whole thing was terrifying. I had all the usual fears about screwing up. As everyone who has ever been in front of a classroom will recognize, teaching, in the best of circumstances, is its own exercise in vulnerability. It was, after all, just me up there. But then the terror ramped up to a whole new level.
I started receiving emails sent from an anonymous hotmail account. The writer identified himself as a student in my class. He told me that he knew where I lived, where I bought groceries, the route I took to get to campus. He said other things but I don’t remember them anymore. I think I tried to forget them. I only remember being scared.
I took these emails to the chair of my department who told me to take them to campus security. We never talked about this issue again. I wonder now if I really seemed that brave to him? I must have because he certainly never followed up. And I didn’t want to be the new girl making trouble and not getting along in her new courses.
I went to campus security. They told me that the only way to do anything about these emails was to report them to the police and to open an investigation. I don’t remember precisely how this conversation went, but I remember feeling as though it would be such a huge drag to go to the police. That it probably wouldn’t be worth my time. Or that tracking this guy down was such a huge, insurmountable problem. I don’t believe that this is what campus security necessarily meant for me to think, but the result of that conversation really was that
I left knowing that they could not help me.
I called the phone company and told them that I no longer wanted my number to be public. I was mad that I would have to pay $4.95 a month for that privilege.
I considered doing other things, but they felt futile and silly. And that was a big problem. I felt dumb for even feeling scared. The whole thing felt weirdly embarrassing. I’m pretty sure that, aside from the department chair and campus security, I didn’t talk about these emails with anyone else.
The worst part was walking into that lecture hall twice a week, looking out at the sea of faces, and knowing that someone out there was going to leave class and send me another abhorrent email.
It was just me up there.
I would like to say that there was some kind of lightening clear resolution. But there wasn’t. I kept showing up. I kept trying not to be scared. One day, the emails stopped.
It was just me up there.
And I’m sure I am not alone in this.
The problem with threats is that they remain threatening long after other people tell us that we don’t have to be scared. They cast a long shadow. They leave us feeling vulnerable long after they have been declared to be nothing more than shadows.
We remember that it is okay to not be okay.
Or, as Sara Ahmed tells us about feminist hurt, “We are not over it; it is not over.”
I don’t want to feel vulnerable. But, as Wendy Chun reminds us, “we’re most vulnerable because we think we’re safe.” Chun refers to how the internet can become a series of gated communities where portals enclose us in seemingly private spaces. As Chun noted in her ACCUTE keynote address this past May, we shouldn’t conflateprivacy with security. I have no desire to live in a home where the window screens are outfitted with trip wires, and where the house keys are attached to a “panic button” that I am encouraged to keep next to the bed. That is also not how I want to live on-line, and not how I want to feel on campus.
I don’t want to feel vulnerable, but I also don’t want to be locked down against students, against the possibilities that feminist hurt allows. I’m not kidding myself. This is not a good place. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were not the case that the histories that bring us to feminism are often histories that leave us fragile? But it is the place where we are and we are going to make something good out of these vulnerabilities. It is okay and not okay.