Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Hate that Hate Produced

Approximately once a year, I end up in the middle of a heated conversation online. Though it changes no one's mind, I try to use it as an example of how not to be goaded into losing my temper. I'm not always successful, but apparently this last go-round I was. Gloating over winning an argument online, assuming I even triumphed, is a futile gesture. The person who attacked me round after round failed to understand the basis of my argument and even completely missed who I was and for what I stood. This, too, is commonplace during internet debate, if one can call it in such dignified terms as that.

At Purdue University in Indiana, a female college student was harassed by someone with an ax to grind, for reasons unclear. In typically classy style, the man responsible posted fliers of her across campus. These fliers shared her personal phone number, picture, and made the specious claim that she wanted to be raped. Though I knew this to be a deplorable act, I tried to keep things in perspective. Yes, whomever did this should face consequences and a genuine wrong was committed. But those who sought to bring this man to justice immediately over-identified with the act, reading into it the sum total of their own fears.

Feminists, gender studies faculty, and women's rights activists are often loaded for bear, waiting in the wings to prosecute something like this in their own backyards. They've read innumerable studies and are familiar with instances of such behavior at other institutes of higher learning, so now is the time to spring into action. Highly emotionally charged events like these often lend themselves to hyperbole. I'm not criticizing their intentions, but I am critiquing their approach.

The well-meaning feminist community decided to label childish and immature acts like the posting of the flyers mentioned earlier as "terrorist." I know what was meant by this comparison, but it is still inflammatory and out of proportion to the nature of the offense. It is just as inflammatory in reverse to the behavior of the man who earlier broached basic privacy and tried to shame a woman into submission. Instead of resorting to terms like "terrorist" that will speak only to the choir and be criticized by everyone else, I would instead say that an epidemic of sexual assault does exist on college campuses.

But as we know, this is nothing especially new. It's been around for a very long time, probably as long as colleges and universities were made co-ed. Our renewed emphasis makes it seem as though incidents like these are something that is growing and swelling at an alarming rate. I don't have any statistics in front of me, but I think that the problem is about as prevalent as it always was, much like race-based discrimination in the criminal justice system. It is no less wrong, but it is not akin to a suicide bomber killing fifteen innocent people in an open air marketplace, bombing an embassy, or lynching a black man falsely accused of a crime.

A friend of mine was enrolled at a women's college called Agnes Scott, which is located in metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia. In the early 1980's she was very nearly sexually assaulted by a serial rapist who had been preying on many woman on campus. It is only due to her own quick thinking that she did not end up a statistic, as he entered her room while she was taking a shower. Making the problem worse, the perpetrator of these acts was black and most of the students were white. These are the sorts of events that are often downplayed because they are complex and can be quickly derailed when race competes with gender. These stories are not simple or simply rendered.

Activists are obsessed with sexy causes and initially throw a tremendous amount of energy into them. In the 1990's, everyone was obsessed with the phenomenon of eating disorders among young women. Now, twenty years later, few people talk about it, leaving us unable to know if all that mental energy went somewhere productive. Because I don't hear about it in activist communities and on the news as I once did surely doesn't mean it went away completely. Now, the new cause célèbre are instances of rape and sexual assault on college campuses.

This is the cause, along with transgender discrimination, that is sucking all the air out of the room. Yet again, this is nothing new. In another decade or two, we will focus on something else, some new crusade, and my hope is that we actually learn from the agitation our righteous indignation now produces. We are, to some extent, at the beck and call of the news cycle, the passage of time, and those who shape the news. We don't talk about racial injustice until someone decides to make it an issue, and once again it gets dragged out into the light and dusted off for good measure.

Self-kindness: Self-compassion entails being warm towards oneself when encountering pain and personal shortcomings, rather than ignoring them or hurting oneself with self-criticism.
Common humanity: Self-compassion also involves recognizing that suffering and personal failure is part of the shared human experience.
Mindfulness: Self-compassion requires taking a balanced approach to one's negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. Negative thoughts and emotions are observed with openness, so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which individuals observe their thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.
Conversely, mindfulness requires that one not be "over-identified" with mental or emotional phenomena, so that one suffers aversive reactions. This latter type of response involves narrowly focusing and ruminating on one's negative emotions.

Being a Quaker feminist can be difficult because most people want good old fashioned retributive justice, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. My path and its demands are much more difficult and far more New Testament. I'm to see that of God in everyone, even those whose behavior I find predatory and completely inexcusable. Few other women's rights activists are willing to see it my way. Even worse, to some, my approach might as well be setting these men free or even taking on their cause. And this again is part of over-identification.

But what these activists fail to understand is that it is counter-productive to be the hate that hate produced. We are no different than those who threaten us if we resort to the same anger and the same fears. Tempting though it is, we must resist. We give lip service to the non-violent resistance Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted upon, giving it our fullest devotion, as we instead insist upon any means necessary. We have forgotten his legacy and what he accomplished if we forsake an extremely effective means of resistance in our desire to punish, to force the shoe on the other foot.

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