Thursday, October 05, 2006

Innocence and Experience

Like a lot of people, I’ve argued that sentimentality about the "innocence" of women and children goes hand in hand with brutality. It doesn't protect them; it makes them targets. It threatens and punishes them for failing to meet an impossible ideal.

Echidne recently posted some quotes from a "pro-male" website, which display a stomach-turning hatred of women per se. As bad as those quotes are, though, they pale in comparison to an e-mail received by Feministing:

I strongly believe that each of you feminists deserved to be anal-fucked and gang-raped and then we will cut your boobs and empty whole magazines of 16 bullets into your vaginas. Then post live digital videos of the rape+executions on all men's sites around the world for our AAA entertainment.
With that image indelibly in mind, let’s consider this report from the Democratic Republic of the Congo:
COOPER (voice-over): Dr. Luc Malemo has a hospital ward full of girls and women who have been raped and developed fistulas, holes in their vaginas or rectums that make it impossible to control bodily functions.

(on camera): Why do so many rape victims here develop fistulas?

MALEMO: We — we think that — that the — the first reason, that the rape is too violent. Some of them, they will use, after – after raping the lady, they will use maybe — they may use a weapon, a knife, or even a piece of wood. And some of them have been shot…after being raped.
What a coincidence, eh? In his flawed but frightening book Male Fantasies, Klaus Theweleit catalogs the obsessive reiteration of such images in the literature of the proto-Nazi Freikorps, where the psychological equivalence of guns, bayonets, and penises is a good deal closer to text than subtext. Theweleit’s argument (or one of them; his work is, to put it politely, sprawling) is that the male fantasy of the pure, sexless woman was threatened by Weimar culture, upon which they'd projected the male fantasy of vampiric female sexuality. In dreams begin responsibilities, as the saying is.

I’ve complained many times about that sullen stalking-horse Maggie Gallagher, who finds it seemly to present a man’s murder of a child – or terroristic destruction of an apartment building - as a logical consequence of female choices. What makes Gallagher’s arguments so exemplary, and so despicable, is that the “choices” of the women in question – which set in motion the "understandable" machinery of male vengeance – are usually constrained by violence, or the threat of violence, or culturally approved ignorance (i.e., "innocence"), or poverty, and are thus not choices at all.

To Gallagher, the stern lesson of the Amish school shooting is that there is "a stain on the human soul." At the same time she says, with winning optimism, "I do not have to be complicit." Echidne agrees with this, though not in a sense that Gallagher would approve:
Why this silence, this looking-aside? Why make loud comments about possible motives but not look at the obvious one: that these men hated girls? Is it because on some level the society accepts such a hatred, because if we start focusing on it we have to ask some mighty unpleasant questions?
That sounds about right to me. Some readers may recall a recent post of mine describing Hamid Karzai’s decision to improve his standing with the Taliban by throwing women, for all intents and purposes, to the wolves. I ended that post by implying that for all our excited talk about a “clash of civilizations,” our mainstream values are perhaps not quite as unique as we’d like to believe. When politicians can gain or maintain power by using women as symbols of sexual danger and moral disorder – “trapdoors into nothingness,” as one member of the Freikorps put it – they tend to do it.

To observers like Gallagher, whether women “deserve” what happens to them afterwards depends on their position on the delusory continuum between innocence and experience. Precisely because they are complicit, they prefer not to look too closely at the continuum between misogyny and murder.


Anonymous said...

Have you already heard that the common thread in school shootings is victimization of girls? Think we saw it at Cursor or RigInt...

[kei to yuri hanashimas']

Phila said...

Is it Friday yet? One needs nudibranches, I think.

Yeah, I agree. I'm sick of thinking about and writing about this stuff. And I realize that it shows, too.

A nudibranch or two will be nice. But I need a vacation, basically.

pbg said...

[saw you talking about this over on Eschaton, so I thought I'd take a look.]
I think that innocence (not doing any harm) is a simple concept that centuries of Christian theology has managed to twist pretty hideously.
(btw, I found it fascinating that in the Left Behind books, the authors completely uncanonically included all children on Earth under 12 in the Rapture.)
But beyond the basic biological urge to protect the young, there is something fundamental that makes the agony or death of a child more pitiable, and that's lack of understanding.
Put it one way, a child hasn't had time to understand the nature of the world, the psrt that pain and death play in the world.
Put it another way, the child hasn't had a chance to come up with illusions to cover up the terror and distance the mind from it.
Either way, the child , uncomprehending, gets the blast of pain, fear and evil full force, with no internal consolation.
And I think we respond to that, ands misname it 'innocence'.
I've watched an action movie with friends in which millions of rounds get fired, dozens of vehicles explode, scores of stuntmen fall twitching to their deaths--and in one scene, the bad guuy shoots a dog.
The response. "Aw man, why'd he have to shoot the dog?"
Because thte dog doesn't understand it.
Just my .02

Phila said...

Put it one way, a child hasn't had time to understand the nature of the world, the psrt that pain and death play in the world.

See, I don't agree with that at all. In the first place, very few people of any age understand "the part that pain and death play in the world." And there are many conflicting interpretations of it, not all of which are consolatory.

Rather than retype all this, I'll just paste what I think are my main points from Eschaton, and that'll have to do for now.

Does that mean an Amish child's death is more tragic than a ghetto child's? Is it more tragic when a 7-year-old is murdered than when a 14-year-old is murdered? At what age or state of education does one's violent death become more acceptable, or less shocking?

I resist the idea that a 20-year-old woman deserves it more, or will find it less frightening, than an 8-year-old girl.

And of course, there are people out there who'll argue the older victim deserved it because, say, she was wearing immodest clothes. A slippery slope, like I said.

I agree with RMJ that we're supposed to protect children, because they can't usually protect themselves, and that this failure is what makes their murder especially painful to think about. They're more alone, perhaps, or maybe they feel being alone more strongly. That's what I find tragic, rather than their relative state of innocence or what have you, which I consider to be a somewhat dangerous way to look at things.

One of my favorite people felt that I was being very harsh and cold about this, and I can't rule out the possibility that she's right. But as I said at RMJ's, I feel that some responses to violence are simply escapist. Murder doesn't happen in a vacuum. In the case of violence against women, when you exalt "virgins" you invite violence of all kinds against "whores" (i.e., against real women, as opposed to idealized abstractions). And when you automatically assume things about "innocent" children, you allow people like Matt Drudge to defend Mark Foley by saying "these kids weren't innocent."

Whether they're innocent or not isn't the point. The real issue is power and domination. Does a woman in a burqa deserve to get raped less than a woman in a miniskirt? Of course not. What a woman wears is not the issue; the issue is the misogyny and violence that enforced dress codes and rape represent. Ruminations on a woman's degree of "innocence" are a distraction from that discussion.

pbg said...

My point in phrasing it two ways was to say that an understanding need notbe a correct one, only one that satisfies.
And if it does not console, it at least provides mental distance.
That distance isn't all that great, and may well crumble in an adult when confronted with unprecedented pain or the closeness of death, which is why it's a horrible thing to do this to adults.
But without any explanations/perspectives/illusions, the pain and fear become infinite.

You started me thinking about this.

To get all mathematical on you, why do you assume that the set of evils has an ordering?
Just because you can say 'more evil' and 'less evil' doesn't mean that you can apply them to every pair of acts.

Scales are nice, but they get you into trouble.

Why do you want to order them? What do you gain by it? A sort of hypothetical cosmic triage? A dismal aesthetic? Because you lose an immense amount by it--as you've been saying.

My first post was saying that without understanding, the fear and pain are greater. I was trying to shift the focus away from a culturally defined virtue to something more experiential--but, truth to tell, I don't think that you can go further, to more/less evil from there.

I'm a Socratic, Phila: if there's one thing I really believe , it's that saying 'I don't know' is a good thing.

Maybe if we can't figure out whether one death is worse than another, we should maybe not kill any of them?

Phila said...

Maybe if we can't figure out whether one death is worse than another, we should maybe not kill any of them?

That's exactly what I'm saying, or trying to, and if you're getting the impression that I'm trying to set up some hierarchy of evils then I'm obviously even more out of it this week than I thought. I'm trying to do precisely the opposite, and I'm arguing against the attraction of various forms of mental distance and escapism.

My first post was saying that without understanding, the fear and pain are greater.

I've heard many variations of this sentiment in the last couple of days. I really don't think I agree, but it certainly has interesting implications, if true. Makes me glad I'm a vegan, for one thing...