Haven’t We Learned from SVU that Victim Blaming & Shaming Isn’t Okay?

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In the recent and growing flood of accusations against sexual predators, there is one question I hear again and again: “Why didn’t [the victim] report it sooner?”

This is never okay to ask aloud. It shouldn’t even be a thought. For any readers of mine who have never watched a single episode of Law & Order: SVU or who have never known a victim or been a victim, I’m going to lay it out plain and then show why this question should never be asked.

It assumes the victim is in a place of power.

Sexual harassment and abuse is about power, not physical desire. Usually, predators choose victims who don’t hold power over them. Children and minors, employees, students, protégés, etc.

When someone doesn’t have the power to stop another’s abuse of them, it’s usually a sign that they don’t feel like they have the power to report it. This is why when one person does make a report, there are often subsequent reports made public. With numbers comes power–suddenly the victim is no longer alone. This is one reason why the #metoo campaign was voiced by so many.

If an employer sexually harasses or abuses an employee, for example, the employee may feel as though reporting the misconduct/crime will mean losing that job. Then, not only has that victim taken a huge emotional risk, but she or he has also taken an immense financial one, too.

It assumes the victim is not emotionally affected by the incident(s).

When I was sixteen years old, my grandfather passed away. I did not cry for over a year, and then one day, while getting a routine dental cleaning, I just broke down. I felt bad for my dentist afterward, because not only did he think I’d somehow been grievously injured, but he also found himself in the position of having to empathize with a patient about grief. He’d been my dentist for over a decade though, and he altered his appointment schedule to sit and talk with me about when he lost his father.

My point is that emotional trauma, whatever its nature, often has lasting impacts. Sometimes it doesn’t hit right away; other times it’s ever-present.

For victims of sexual harassment, abuse, or assault, they must work through that emotional trauma. Sometimes it’s just not possible to report an incident right after it happens.

It assumes the victim feels they will be believed.

This is a big assumption because most of the time, situations of sexual harassment, abuse, or assault come down to one person’s word against another’s. When one of those people is in a position of power, say a boss for example, the victim may believe that the abuser’s power will lend credibility, and therefore her or his own story won’t be believed.

In many cases, this is true. Even if it’s not true though, the victim may worry that it is.

Imagine being sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted and having little to no physical evidence. Imagine deciding to report it and then imagine no one believes you’re telling the truth. Whatever emotional healing may have already taken place could be at risk, as well as other elements of a victim’s life.

It assumes the victim has done something wrong.

Saying that someone should have reported an event sooner is placing some blame at their feet. Maybe not for the event itself, but for its aftermath, and that’s not okay. It’s never a victim’s fault that she or he is attacked.

If someone speeds through a red light and T-bones your car when you have the right to cross an intersection, you’re not at-fault. We need to stop shaming and blaming victims. We need to stop putting the onus on them to keep themselves safe from sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. We need to provide a safe space for them to come forward when someone has victimized them.

Can it go too far?

The source of victim blaming and shaming isn’t often malicious. Often times, it’s fear of a modern witch hunt that causes this mentality to take hold. After all, since it’s one person’s word against a potential predator, who do you trust?

The answer is simple, I think. Far simpler than it may seem, especially for those of us not involved in investigations into claims of such abuse. Here’s what we need to do:

  1. Treat the victim with empathy. Make her or him feel safe to speak about what happened.

That’s really all we need to do, until something is proven in a court of law. Yes, the court of public opinion matters but we need to guard ourselves that it not go too far. I’m not saying I don’t believe victims. I think in 99.99% of cases they’re telling the truth. But there’s always the possibility for a shred of uncertainty.

In our country, people are legally innocent until proven guilty. We have due process for a reason. I’m not saying it’s always fair or right. I’m not saying that you can’t go ahead and believe someone is a sexual predator.

What I am saying is that unless you sit on the jury for that case, it’s not your job to decide. The system isn’t perfect and it never will be, but we have to work within it to improve it, and that starts with empathy for anyone who feels victimized.

Final Thoughts

I am a feminist, which means I believe in equality for all regardless of gender association or disassociation. I’ve also studied history and literature. Humans have a tendency to go into witch-hunt-mode and I think it’s important to prevent reaching that point while still supporting those who are suffering. Let’s focus on trying to make our system work better so that we can enforce laws that make those who are guilty a) easier to identify and prosecute and b) pay their debts to society.

I’ll leave you with this thought, which I learned from reading Witchcraze by Anne Barstow. Prior to the attachment of the idea of worshipping Satan, witchcraft was not a crime punishable by death. If someone accused a witch who was then found innocent, the accuser would have to pay a fine. The people of the medieval era understood that a crazed witch hunt would devastate the population.

So let’s not get crazy about this. It’s great that people feel safe enough to come forward. And I’m not suggestion they shouldn’t be believed. I’m just saying that judgment should wait until evidence is in.

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Ladies, We Might As Well Work For Free

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Yesterday, this article about the gender wage gap popped on my newsfeed, and it made me feel more than a little sick. I knew there was a wage gap between men and women, but I’d never thought of it in these terms before. Basically, on average, if women worked for free from October 26, 2017, until the end of this year, that would represent the average wage gap.

That’s disgusting for a couple of reasons. I won’t wax poetic on how it’s 2017 and we should be past this because I think if the last twelve months have proved anything, it’s that America at age 241 has not yet reached maturity. (Seriously, does anyone know the conversion rate to human years for a country?)

To me, one of the biggest problems isn’t just that women make less than men. It’s typical for privileged groups to make more–not that that makes it okay because it certainly does not–but what really bothers me, what’s really at the heart of this issue, is the division of labor based on gender.

I’m sorry, did World War II just end? Is it time to send Rosie the Riveter back to the kitchen because now the men are back and we certainly can’t expect them to take up cooking and cleaning and all the home economics jobs? Is it time to rip the Barbie out of your son’s hands and tell him he must play with G.I. Joe because he’s a boy and boys play with action figures, not dolls?

Are we going to force women to confine themselves to female roles for female pay because we certainly can’t expect men to deign to take those jobs for that salary and corporate America couldn’t possibly imagine paying equal wages? How about we go back to the times when women were forced by societal standards to wear so many layers (and cook all the meals) that 25% of American women died in kitchen fires? (Don’t believe me? I read it in this book. By the way, an excellent resource for writing about Colonial life.)

For the record, I’m being a tad hyperbolic for a reason–to point out how ridiculous it is that we even have a wage gap. It’s more likely these days that the misogynists who perpetuate this situation would rather women not be in the workplace at all. They’re the same men who say that if a woman can’t handle being sexually harassed or assaulted, then she doesn’t belong in the workplace.

To be fair, there are some companies that are striving to close the wage gap. In some roles, that gap is closing. But it’s not closing fast enough, and in certain positions, it’s even worse than $0.80 on the dollar. So how do we fix it? Where do we go from here?

I promise that the answer doesn’t lie in shipping all men out of the country. Men are valuable, as valuable as women, and their opinions are just as necessary to create a diverse and complete world. For that reason, starting a company run by and entirely staffed by women is also not the answer (and it’s pretty illegal).

Here’s what needs to happen to close this wage gap:

  • Hire for the needs of the position, and the matching skills of a candidate–not whether she can get the job done for less money than a man.
  • For persons of all genders, and those who don’t associate with a gender, stop trying to force them into roles defined by gender.
  • Persons of all genders should learn how to negotiate a salary. We should teach anyone and everyone applying for jobs (and before then) that associating with a non-privileged gender does not mean one’s professional skills are valued less.
  • Support companies that strive to close the gender gap by shopping with them. Shop less or not at all with those companies who refuse. Money talks.

Oh, and one more thing: We need to stop telling women not to answer the gender question on job applications. I’m not saying everyone or anyone should answer. But telling a woman not to answer is like telling a woman not to wear certain clothes because such a wardrobe might be too much of a temptation for men.

Finally, we need to take this problem out of the workplace. What I mean by this is that we need to stop thinking of men as the breadwinners and women as the caretakers. Men are capable of being caretakers and women are capable of being breadwinners.

Free Speech: What Does The 1st Amendment Allow?

constitution-1486010_1280It’s interesting to me how the effects of an event can continue to be felt, like aftershocks of an earthquake, long after the event occurred. I still hear people talking about Charlottesville and how the white supremacist protestors’ first amendment rights were infringed upon.

No, they weren’t.

So I decided to take a moment to talk about the first amendment, and what it really means. I also don’t mind taking a break from my MFA work to #WriteBacktoFightBack.

The first amendment of the United States Constitution reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Let’s take a minute to unpack this amendment, and the language the founders used when they wrote it.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

Congress isn’t allowed to tell you what religion to practice if any.

or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press

Congress isn’t allowed to tell you that you can’t say something. It isn’t allowed to say the press can’t print or say something.

or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Congress isn’t allowed to stop people from peacefully protesting. It can’t stop anyone from petitioning the Government if something the Government is doing is irksome.

The Constitution is a Contract Between the Government and the People

Notice that the first amendment begins with “Congress.” It doesn’t say “The People shall make…” The whole document is like a contract, or agreement, between the government and the people. It stipulates how the government can treat the people, and vice versa.

So, here’s what this means for what happened in Charlottesville back in August:

  1. Congress could not tell either the white supremacist protestors or the anti-protestors that they couldn’t gather or speak out.
  2. The anti-protestors were not infringing on the protestors’ first amendment rights when they shouted over them or stood against them.

It’s impossible for The People to infringe on someone’s freedom of speech because that freedom is only guaranteed in the relationship between The People and the Government. It’s not guaranteed between The People and The People.

In other words, if I say the sky is blue and you think it’s purple, you can shout it’s purple at the top of your lungs until you drown out my voice–and you’re not infringing on my first amendment rights.

Screaming “Fire!” in a Crowded Room

As The People, we have an inherent and assumed responsibility to others that when we exercise the rights guaranteed to us by our nation’s Constitution, we do so without causing undue harm to others.

Basically, if you get up in the middle of a crowded room and scream, “Fire!” when there is no fire, you are using your freedom of speech to harm others. By all means, if there is fire, warn everyone and help them exit in an orderly manner. But if you cry wolf, and someone gets trampled to death, on your head be it.

When the protestors gathered in Charlottesville to spew hate speech, that was akin to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded room when there wasn’t even a wisp of smoke. In that case, anyone who was there had a duty to speak out against them.

There were no fine people on the side of the white supremacists that day. I wouldn’t want to be in a movie theater with any of them when one of them gets up and screams “Fire!” because they would just go along with it.

Therefore, in addition to not having their first amendment rights infringed upon, the white supremacist protestors used those same rights in an irresponsible manner.

Share Your Thoughts

Have you had someone tell you that they feel for those protestors because “their first amendment rights were trampled on?” What did you say? How did you react?

What’s in a name?

What we call ourselves–and others–is important. We begin identifying others early. Infants learn that their caregivers provide them with food and comfort, and learn their names. At around seven months old, many babies start to get nervous around strangers. They can’t identify them. Later, babies learn to self-identify. This usually coincides with them deciding the baby in the mirror is them, not another.

We don’t lose the sense that names carry meaning as we grow up.

When I was a kid, I was a bit out-toed. This means I walked with my toes pointing out. I used to tell my classmates this was because I took ballet, which of course it’s not. It has more to do with the structure and positioning of the leg bones. It didn’t stop one child from nicknaming me “Ducky.” Unfortunately for me, the name stuck from second grade through eighth, even though I stopped walking that way by fifth grade, with the encouragement of my Nana.

I hated the nickname “Ducky.” When I was in the fourth grade, there were only a small handful of students who didn’t call me that, and perhaps only one or two who were still friendly to me.

But this post isn’t about bullying–which is awful. It’s about the power of a name. The power of what we call ourselves and what we call others.

Around the same time–so we’re talking early 1990s here–teachers didn’t say things like “Sit criss-cross, apple sauce.” They told us to sit “Indian Style.” I didn’t know at that age that this was improper. And no–they didn’t mean for us to sit like people from the nation of India. (I’m sure people all over the world sit with their legs crossed when they sit on the floor or ground; it’s comfortable. I’m not attempting to assert that this style of sitting is only for certain groups or chosen by all groups.) Back then, people in my area commonly referred to the people now known as First Nations People as “Indians.”

Considering the term had been introduced in the late fifteenth century, it certainly had staying power. It had other power, too.

By forcing a name on a group of people as diverse as the many tribes and nations that they belonged to, we were continuing to assert our privilege…and as children, we didn’t even know it.

In researching, planning, and writing my book for my MFA, I think a lot about the term “Indians” a lot, particularly as my book takes place in the 1600s. Every time I write the word now I think in my head, “First Nations People” because without doing that, I think I’d feel a little sick.

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These last few days, I got to thinking about the people we refer to when we say “alt-right.” Thought of as beyond far-right, these people typically fall into groups like neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other white supremacist groups. We need to stop using this term.

For one thing, it was coined by Richard Spencer. If you don’t know who he is, look him up. Educate yourself.

For another thing, we need to call these groups what they are, because the term “alt-right” or “alternative right” makes words like “Nazis” seem everyday. We need to call them Nazis. We need to call them the KKK. We need to call them white supremacists, anti-semites, racists…we need to identify them by their ideology because it’s so hate-filled.

It’s scary to do that, I’ll admit. Who wants to even think the sentence “Nazis and their white-supremacist buddies carried torches through Charlottesville, chanting ‘Blood and soil’ this weekend.”

I don’t like that sentence one bit, but it’s the truth.

Let’s be more like Hermione when she says, “Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.” Make no mistake that the Nazis, KKK, and other white-supremacist groups and individuals are trying to make us fear them. They weren’t carrying torches because they ran out of D-batteries for their flashlights. Of course, tiki torches don’t exactly strike as frightening an image as actual torches, but it’s clear what they were going for.

So what was Trump trying to do when he mentioned the “alt-left” carrying clubs? First of all, there is no alt-left. It doesn’t exist. Second of all, yes, some had clubs. But what Trump was trying to do here was equate the counter-protestors to the Nazis, KKK, and other white supremacists.

Look, violence is never good. Never. But if someone feels they need a club in order to preserve their own life, who am I to say they don’t when the supremacists bring guns to the city with them?

The difference–the crucial difference–between the white supremacists and those who oppose them is that one group is fighting to protect democracy and promote equal rights, and the other group is fighting to oppress. To use the evilest tactics imaginable and unimaginable.

Trump hoped that by calling them “alt-left,” he could place the counter-protestors in Charlottesville on the same moral level as the white supremacists. He failed, as evidenced by the responses of pretty much everyone around him except for Duke, the former KKK grand wizard.

Call people by what they are. We say First Nations People now instead of “Indians.” We need to say Nazis, KKK, white supremacists, et al instead of “alt-right.”

(Another disclaimer: I am in no way equating First Nations People with white supremacists. That would be ridiculous. I only mention them together because I am relating current events to my own writing process.)

Call people what they are, whether to be respectful or to decrease fear of them.

But don’t get me wrong. We should fear Nazis, KKK, and white supremacists…but we cannot let that fear drive us into submission. To quote Hamilton, “Rise up!” We need to write back to fight back. We need to call people out when they do and say racist things. We need to remember that we let things get to the point where nazis marched through a US city.

We need to remember that ultimately, when off the teleprompter, the president of the United States of America, Donald Trump, sympathized with white supremacists. We need to remember that he said there were two sides to our country.

We need to remember to be on the right side. The side of love. The side that won’t succumb to fear and hatred.

Let’s extinguish their tiki torches and re-ignite Lady Liberty’s.

 

Write back to fight back!

Write back...

When I saw what was going on in Charlottesville over the weekend, I wasn’t shocked. I was disgusted. And since then, I’ve thought about what I can do to help improve our nation’s situation. Last autumn, I did not vote for Donald Trump. Like so many, I was certain he could never win, that his rhetoric was too much on the fringe, his personality too brash, and his allowance of hatred too frequent.

And then he won.

Since then, I have thought a lot about the history of our country. Inspired in part by my Hamilton obsession* and in part by my education in the humanities, I have thought at length about where we stand as a nation and what it means for our future. I cemented what I’ve thought to be true since I graduated from public school and started thinking for myself: America has never been great.

The MAGA caps are lies in so many ways, some of them so ironic it’s funny (like how they’re made in China). But the worst part about these hats is the idea behind them–that America was great.

America was great for white men who were willing to oppress First Nations People.

America was great for white men who were willing to oppress women.

America was great for white men who were willing to oppress people of color.

America was great for white men who were willing to oppress immigrants.

America was great for white men who were willing to oppress the LGBT community.

I could go on and on; these are just some of the examples of oppression that have built our country to the tinderbox it now is. Never was it great for everyone, and it’s so far from great now that it may seem impossible to even approach greatness, in the way many generally think of the term today.

And there’s the rub. In order to become great, we have to define greatness. Everyone seems to have differing opinions.

I want to share with you the usage of the term as tracked in Google’s N-gram viewer:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=greatness&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1775&year_end=2016&corpus=15&smoothing=7&share=&direct_url=t4%3B%2Cgreatness%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bgreatness%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BGreatness%3B%2Cc0

If you’re not familiar with this tool, it tracks the frequency of word usage in books over time. I’ve set the chart back to 1775. As you can see, the usage of the word “greatness” has been in decline since the early-mid nineteenth century. Only recently did it experience an uptick in popularity.

What I would like to do next is share how the definition of greatness has changed over centuries of use. For this, I searched for the term in the Online Etymology Dictionary**.

In Old English, it comes from the word greatnys which means “thickness, coarseness, stoutness.” It didn’t become associated with “eminence” until the 14th century. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was associated also with megalomania. So as you can see, throughout history, this word has been vague in that it has drastically changed meaning so many times that it shouldn’t even be an aspiration.

Instead, I suggest we aspire to equality. Now, I’m not naive. I know that a utopia is unrealistic, if not impossible. I doubt I will see one in my lifetime, at the least. But the whole point of society is to progress…the problem is that we’ve been progressing in the wrong direction, with the wrong aim.

We’ve been progressing to the benefit of the privileged, which leaves America using people as means to an end. I’d like to share with you a recent awakening I’ve had about toothpaste and shampoo.

For years, I’ve used Tom’s of Maine toothpaste. I use some of their other products and I liked thinking that I was using something that wouldn’t cause harm to me or the environment. Then I found out about this. I found out a little late, but better late than never, right?

Shame on me, I’d never read the label. I have what’s known as a histaminic intolerance to sulfates, which means that if I have enough sulfates, my eye or lip will swell up so that I look like I’ve been in a fight. Not fun. However, this experience taught me that Tom’s–and many other natural products–say they’re natural but because there’s no regulation on the usage of that term, they don’t actually have to be.

Now I use Jason’s, which doesn’t have any sulfates. No, I don’t like gel toothpaste. I don’t like tea tree and cinnamon flavor toothpaste. But you know what? At least I don’t wake up with my eye swollen shut.

Now, onto shampoo. My sister told me this last week about this app called Think Dirty. Think Dirty allows you to search for products and then it tells you how horrible the products are. I phrase it that way because most of what I’ve been using that I thought was good for me is highly carcinogenic. Even the sulfate-free supposedly amazing-for-you-and-the-earth shampoo I was using (Living Proof Daily).

It took a long time to find a shampoo that isn’t loaded with chemicals, lying about its ingredients, lying about testing on animals, and so many other things–I finally found one and it’s on its way. I haven’t tried it yet so I can’t recommend it, but if it’s good I’ll edit in my thoughts.

EDIT: I really love the new shampoo I’m using now. It’s bamboo-based, low-suds, gentle on the environment and gentle on me. It’s more $$$ than I’m used to paying for shampoo but it’s worth it. Going to add to the conditioner to my arsenal when I order my next bottle. This is what I bought: Hairprint Fermented Bamboo Shampoo.

Here’s what I cemented in my mind in the broader sense from my toothpaste and shampoo adventures: Most companies don’t care who or what they hurt or kill so long as they make a profit. They look out for themselves first.

Just like everyone in our country who is unwilling to live in a world that no longer grants them privilege.

So where does this leave us? Where does this leave me? What else can I do?

I can write.

I am a writer. I’m not a half bad one, I’m not afraid to say–though there’s always room for much improvement, hence pursuing my MFA. Writers can help formulate the world they want to see. They can help call attention to the wrongs they witness. They can hold up a mirror to the world and force it to meet its own reflection.

That’s what I will do–I will write back to fight back!

Everything I write from this day forward will be written with this idea in mind. This is my new motto–and I’ve never really had one before but it’s high time I have one. I welcome you to share this one with me, whether you write fiction, poetry, nonfiction, screenplays, plays, songs or anything else.

In addition to blogging about getting my MFA and about writing, I’m going to blog about using the craft to better this world because while we’ve never been great and we may never be great, we can be pretty amazing if we stop running away from our own reflection.

*I wish that Hamilton could be viewed by the people it was intended to honor. It is far too expensive. I still love it though and can’t blame the artists for Broadway’s gouging. 

**The OED is a great resource for writers. Whether or not you want to look up the history of the word “greatness,” you should bookmark this site.