Bil's Read This post last week erupted into a large flame war. Conversations like this one are always hard for me to step into, emotions are so high and people are very rarely listening or willing to reconsider the assumptions that have already been made. I'm glad that thread has died down and I don't want to start it up again. If you want to continue the shouting match and argue who is at fault for what, please comment on that thread, not here. But I've seen that post discussed in half a dozen blogs, each with comment counts from 50 and 300. This has definitely touched a nerve, and the issues brought up in the post last week go far beyond who did what wrong or engaging debates of blame.
Advocating Violence is Never Okay.
This was the main concern of several people in that discussion thread, but I have to wonder, in a society built so deeply upon violence is it possible to remove it or advocacy of it from our lives? We might want to hold ourselves to a higher standard than the rest of the world, but to do so requires consistency. And that includes considering the violence inherent in law enforcement, the violence embedded in our language, and of course, the physical and non-physical violence in all systems of oppression.
What is Violence?
There are, of course, lots of different kinds of violence. Sometimes certain kinds of violence get privileged as okay while others are condemned. I learned this in elementary school where physically harming another student, even in self defense, would get me in trouble. But verbally prodding at them and taking apart their self esteem was okay. Similarly, I've had the fact that I've been in an abusive relationship minimized because the abuse was not physical.
Non-physical violence can harm, this much is clear. There are more gradations we can make, though. Calling someone an idiot or a buffoon is often considered par for the course of online blogs. But hostilely brandishing derogatory slurs can get you banned. That's because violence has a much greater impact when it coincides systemic oppression. If you refer to a cis man as a woman he might be insulted, but he can go back to his life knowing no one actually believes it and that his gender will be respected. If you refer to a trans man as a woman, however, not only will you be compounding all the other times his gender was disrespected, but you might cause others to begin disrespecting his gender as well.
Last week's comment was hardly the first instance of violence typed onto the pages of Bilerico. Just off the top of my head I can recall dozens of instances of name calling, several purposeful misgenderings, a post titled with an anti-trans woman slur, and a few folks claiming that an individual deserved to be raped because he was kinky and a sex worker. Previously, these things have been considered okay either because they were not directed at an individual, not involving physical violence, or directed at an individual who doesn't frequent this blog.
Figuring out where to draw this line can be difficult. From a practical standpoint alone, moderating every comment in which someone is called stupid or an idiot would be quite burdensome and there would definitely be people who disagree with such a policy. But should we do it anyway or only ban derogatory insults? Should we make distinctions between inappropriate behaviors against someone who frequents the blog versus public figures who don't? Is it worse to support or advocate violence against a group or an individual? And more importantly, what do we do to rectify the situation when someone crosses the established boundaries. This is not rhetorical, I encourage discussion on these questions.
Violence begets violence
It is easy to speak out against violence which impacts you and your friends, but it is much harder to silence the urge to retaliate when those we care about are threatened. I am myself ambivalent. I am not certain if it is inappropriate to hurt those who target us with violence. If attacked on the street, you can bet that I'm going to fight back. But if advocating violence truly is never okay, then fighting back or using violence to subdue those who would hurt us is still not okay.
From this perspective, what someone has done or is doing to you is irrelevant. Lashing out at them is not okay. Nothing that the HRC has done can justify or excuse violence targeted against them. It's not that hard a position to get behind. Most of us want to see an end to the violence and I'm assuming a lot of people's motivation behind their comments were simply that.
Punching a queer basher is one thing, but responding with violence when you are not immediately threatened crosses a line for a lot of people. Yet if we take a moment to think about this there are all kinds of ways we use violence to retaliate against others - often with the intention to prevent them from being able to hurt us further. In fact, that is the main idea behind the criminal justice system.
I imagine some people reading this don't believe the HRC has ever done anything wrong, other's might think that their actions are inappropriate but not at the level of queer bashing, still others believe that their policies and actions have caused much more damage to many more people than one random street beating. You don't have to agree, but I urge everyone who hasn't already to take a moment and consider that last perspective. If a large institution was forcing you as well as more and more of your friends into the streets and other dangerous living situations, and the risks you were taking to survive were causing several of your friends to turn up dead, would you hold them less accountable than the random queer basher? Would you consider retaliation against them? You don't have to believe that's what's actually happening to understand the perspective of those who do. And those who see the stakes at that level will not easily be persuaded by calls to non-violence when they see continued violence perpetrated against them.
Further, using the threat of a gun to force people into bondage and dragging them away, strip searching them, and locking them up is generally considered violence. Yet many consider it perfectly acceptable behavior for the police. In fact, most people see it as a necessary response to violent individuals. "Never" is a very absolute word. If it is true that there is no excuse for violence, then police violence - even the routine violence that is enacted when law enforcement follows their policies - is not okay. The further violence that police, prisoners, and prison guards regularly enact against oppressed populations and trans women of color in particular is even more deplorable. We must be aware that this is violence that occurs every time someone is detained in police custody, regardless of whether they are being charged with a crime, prosecuted, or found guilty. Personally, I'm likely to call the police if I'm assaulted, but I'm aware that doing so means responding to violence with violence.
Rather than retaliate physically, many people choose to increase the violence in the words that they use to display frustration and anger. I remember my years in kindergarten and early elementary school were filled with angry statements like "I'm going to kill you," when it was clear that no one involved was considering physical violence or even understood how to kill someone. Saying "I'm going to kill you" was simply the best language we had to express an extreme amount of frustration, anger, or rage. It was so commonplace that I was startled when I got older and realized that the phrase was generally considered by adults to be a threat of violence if not a death threat. Despite the fact that it is rather literally a threat of death, we had become used to it as a phrase or idiom that held no real threat or violent intent.
Violence is so much a part of the foundations of the world's dominant cultures that it can be hard to remove it from our language. Simple statements such as "Fight Prop 8" frame our concerns in a conflict where we violently oppose our oppressors even when we don't intend to express violence. I've heard movie lines of "This means war" or teams discussing how they are going to "murder" their opponents all without any intention of actually killing anyone. Just the same way my childhood classmates and I were unaware of the violence unintentionally expressed in our language.
A lot of violent expressions are used as metaphors. In fact, that was my first thought when I read the original comment full of angry phrases like "head on a platter" or "head on a pike." While both phrases are rooted in literal beheadings, they have become a part of common language to reference punishment and public display of punishing those who have wronged us. Violent yet empty threats have become so much a part of our language that there is even a place for them in AIMspeak: DIAF - Die in a Fire.
Because of this, the legal system often enforces laws around threats with a very subjective and strict eye for grammar. I might see "I want to see you dead" and "I'm going to kill you" as very similar, but the law sees them as worlds apart. This I have learned from my college where I endured a death threat and several awkwardly phrased descriptions and jokes of how I might be subjected to hypothetical sexual violence. Remembering that experience, I understand how much of an impact violent language can have and why many were so adamant in their denouncement of violent language vaguely targeted at a contributor -- one of our own. In my case, however, hundreds of people and a dozen progressive rights organizations came together to defend the freedom of speech to make such violent "jokes," and the police refused to act so long as physical violence did not occur.
Of course, it's also possible that the victim matters and that threats made against a trans woman are more easily seen as "jokes" while threats made by trans women might be taken very seriously.
Is It Possible?
Given how pervasive violence is in our language, behavior, and our options for responding to violence, holding to an absolute standard that advocating violence is never okay seems difficult. I'm tempted to say it's an impossible battle... um, cause. But I'm a big fan of many other impossible causes. I don't expect to see an end to racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia within my grandchildrens' lifetimes, but I still fight... um, work... to end those systems every day.
Figuring out a way to elevate the dialog in an online community like this blog is admirable. We already tend to have very amiable discussions here (outside of the occasional flame war... um, shouting match). I've noticed people willing to rethink their assumptions and actually listen to criticisms rather than get defensive. Not all the time, of course, but more often than a lot of other online spaces. Asking folks to cut out the DIAF-type responses seems very in line with encouraging that type of discussion. But as we can plainly see from the chatter in the blogosphere, there are a few more details than that to work out. In addition to crafting a better policy, though, people are always welcome to aim for a higher standard. And no matter what official policy is, there will always be a higher standard that we can aspire to than what is practically possible through enforcement. Whatever standard you see as most appropriate, strive to follow it consciously. It is only fair that we hold ourselves to the same standard we ask of others, and that we keep to it even when others refuse.