On Fear

I have taken action against fear. I sat up the whole night and wrote. —Rainer Maria Rilke

 

The present feels defined by fear. A few weeks ago, a high school student fatally shot seventeen people, an occurrence so regular that by the time you read this it’ll probably have already happened again, in a different school, with different dead kids. Currently, someone is setting off bombs in Austin, Texas. Six were reported to have blown up in people’s faces, last I checked. At least two people were killed.

Trump continues to terrorize, both in the United States and abroad, blundering his way around the nuclear button, the deportation machine, the rise of the far-right, oafish to the last but nonetheless the blind man at the head of a mass killing machine.

And then there’s the outpouring of testimonies about sexual violence. Since October of last year, when the New York Times published an investigation of Harvey Weinstein alleging decades of sexual abuse and its cover up, the subject has been at the forefront of the media, with every newspaper in the country producing stories on #MeToo as one man after another is accused, while one writer after another frets about the present and our future.

Fear is ever-present in the #MeToo conversation. Fear of men. Fear of backlash. Fear of violence. Fear of retaliation. Fear of unintended harm. Fear of false allegations.

We weren’t always hemmed in by fear. When I was young, I was defined by my lack of fear. My friends and I were always scrambling up fire escapes to hang out on the roofs of buildings in the commercial strip near our school, hoisting ourselves upon the rust and laughing as feet slid and hands missed their mark. Favorite roofs became second homes, hangouts for sneaking cigarettes and weed and cheap vodka. Sometimes, I’d dangle off the edge of one particularly rickety fire escape, its blackness revealed as my hands and knees and feet wiped clean the dirt caked into its surface.

My best friend, always more fearful than me, would squeal in agony, terrified that I’d lose my grip on the metal and plummet three stories down onto the parking lot above which I swayed by a single hand, showing off my daring just to scare her. I couldn’t fathom a world where I fell.

In between trips to the roof, we’d stop into Rite-Aid to shoplift, working ourselves up into shoving handfuls of candy and socks. For some reason, socks were our go-to item. I still have a collection of tacky socks with kittens or hearts all over them, cheaply made and wasting away in the back of my closet. I didn’t need these things. I simply wasn’t afraid of getting caught, even when I did. The scolding was always short-lived and soon enough, I’d be back on the roof, my lap strewn with KitKat bars and socks.

But now, it’s endless, this fear, or anxiety. In a sense, we’re all arguing about which word best describes the state permeating this conversation. For Freud, anxiety is “used in connection with a condition regardless of any objective, while fear is essentially directed toward an object.” While the sailor fears clouds gathering on a horizon, the ship’s inexperienced passenger may be anxious—in Freud’s terminology, a sort of “free-floating fear”—for the entirety of her trip.

What is at stake is the presence of an object: do we have one when it comes to the fear being expressed by those speaking out about sexual violence? Is there an object to fear for those asserting that #MeToo has gone “too far”?

The answer seems to be yes: there is an object to fear, be it a powerful abuser or a vengeful accuser. Which isn’t to equate the two, but to establish that what we’re dealing with is fear proper. As Corey Robin wrote in a book on the subject, fear of abuse (not, it is worth noting, fear of false allegations), though intimate and inextricably intertwined with our individual selves, must be understood as political fear. Our fear of the harasser is not “the product of an unfortunate but entirely private derangement of power,” but of “pervasive social inequities, and help sustain long traditions of rule over women and workers. These inequities and traditions are often reinforced, however indirectly, and created, however remotely, by government policies. Behind the husband’s abuse of his wife lie centuries of laws and doctrines awarding him authority over her.” Behind the abuser, a system of abuse.

And there is another fear, too, when it comes to the way this conversation is playing out, in newspapers and offices and dark corners of loud bars.This register of fear is overdetermined. I fear the positions into which we, those who write on this subject, are forced, and which we force women into, by making our arguments. We assert that all women experience X, fear Y, love Z. It’s a flattening, and a simplification.

Again and again, we read of victims’ fears of speaking up, and relatedly, the freedom that comes with speech. In her new book on sexual harassment in low-wage workplaces, Bernice Yeung records janitors, farm workers, and domestic caregivers, victims of workplace abuse, shocked by their relief after speaking about the abuse they’d carried, ashamed, for months, or even years, of their lives.

But for many of Yeung’s interviewees, the cost of speech is too high, and often, as is the case for those systematically marginalized, when they do speak, no one listens. As Charlotte Shane wrote, “We’re told there’s a sea change occurring, yet there’s no codification of that shift—no formal reform, no organized action—and we’re left with the sense that while “speaking out” has little to no power, it’s the only power we have, or the only one we’re permitted to wield.” Shane quotes Renee Heberlee, a feminist academic: “[Survivors] express themselves out of the conviction that once society understands the truth about itself, it will transform its terms of existence,” adding that if (when) that proves not to be true, “the emphasis on speaking out is not questioned in itself; instead it is said to not have worked yet.

Words free us; words fail us. Words are all we have; words are not enough.

Panic, too, permeates the conversation. It’s a “sex panic” or a “moral panic,” but rest assured, there’s fear in the air. References to panic come most often from detractors—or skeptics, they might prefer to call themselves—of #MeToo, cautioning against going “too far,” whatever that may mean. It also comes, importantly, from queer writers, all-too-familiar with the reactionary, conservative effects of such panics. And they aren’t wrong. This is a panicked atmosphere.

But there is a failure of communication taking place. Detractors of #MeToo rail against oversimplifying, preferring nuance, while many of those they criticize agree, taking nuance and distinctions as a starting point of addressing such a deeply personal issue. After dozens of such articles on all sides, we seem to be coming up against a failure of language, a familiar problem for something like sex, power, and desire. For Wittgenstein, “whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent.” And yet, we can’t, for these issues have rarely gotten as wide a hearing as they do today. Silence is not in the cards.

Yet our identities are often failed by language. Or, rather, today, our identities overwhelm our language, swallowing us and our silly, strangled words up whole. This is not new. Judith Butler felt the totalizing nature of identity long ago. “It’s painful for me that I wrote a whole book calling into question identity politics, only then to be constituted as a token of lesbian identity. Either people didn’t really read the book, or the commodification of identity politics is so strong that whatever you write, even when it’s explicitly opposed to that politics, gets taken up by that machinery.” In our current society, much of what we think of as identity is chosen by others, rather than defined by us. Such is the psychic violence of identity: it is something people do to us. As the Fields sisters say about “racecraft,” it doesn’t matter how you define yourself, you are defined as such regardless of how you see the matter.” And the same holds for Butler. She may say or think whatever she likes, but for many, she will be lesbian first, philosopher second.

We are not free to choose. No matter which way we move, we act out stereotypes. I am A Woman Writing About Sexual Assault. Our words do not allow us to define ourselves. Our actions do not make us immune to abuse. In the case of sexual abuse, you will be defined by your sexual availability, or lack thereof. As Linda Gordon said thirty-five years ago, “It is hard to function as a serious intellectual in a university when one is being addressed mainly in the form of compliments on one’s appearance. It is hard to do manual work with strength and skill when one is constantly made conscious of one’s body as it is sexually perceived by others. It is hard to be politically active when one is not heard.” When writing of sexual violence, many of your readers will define you by your experience of that violence, should you disclose it. They’ll suspect it even if you don’t. You become victim—or survivor, in some circles—but never you, Alex Press, or whatever your name may be. And so it becomes difficult to write or say anything at all. Why speak when no one listens? Such is how, as Jacqueline Rose wrote recently, anti-rape activists, “opposed to being victims” are nonetheless deemed perpetual victim by those opposed to their goals.

Wrote Jesse Kindig in the introduction to a recent book on #MeToo, “Writing and telling might be the opposite of trauma; it might not be.”

 

 


This blog is where I publish thoughts, ideas, and the like that aren’t the sort of thing I’d want to publish, If you liked what you read, feel free to Venmo me @alexnpress.

78 thoughts on “On Fear

  1. This was very thought provoking. Life in general has elements of fear because it is what either drives us or stagnates us. It helps to make out decisions (let it cripple us or make us stronger). We go through periods in history where that is more prevalent as well and I think THAT is when we make a difference and we do use our voices. It isn’t always easy, but that is what makes history, that is what permeates change for the future. Thank you for sharing this ❤

    Liked by 9 people

  2. Very well written. Definitely a very thought inspiring read, especially since I myself have been dealing with an overall “blanket” sort of anxiety where I’m finding myself just concerned in general. About how we’ve made it this far. Where we are headed. The future of not only this country but of our species as a whole. The safety of our children and the constant concern that they are losing so much of their childhood innocence these days and how it will affect their children to come. And I too, have been reflecting as of late on how our childhoods contrast so much from what children today experience and how as a child I felt invincible and everything was possible and now as an adult, I worry about everything and where all of these terrible decisions are going to take us.

    Liked by 9 people

  3. All I see is a complete and utter ignorance of what the at-right even is and how the average Trump voter would be the first people in line to ship the alt-right psychopaths off to Antarctica with a one way ticket. Follow it up with a unhealthy dose of “I am a perpetual victim” and this is not a blog. It is the same extreme left wing drivel I have been reading for years. Stop hiding behind the excuses and make a stand for what you believe, and believe in.

    Liked by 8 people

  4. First off, I would like to remark that John Wilson, of the comment above me, has an adorable puppy. He looks a little like he’s judging you, doesn’t he? Seems fitting.
    Second off, this was a well informed post. I dug all the interwoven references – it’s cool to see someone taking the time to not just jot down opinions, but cite expert sources. That being said, I was hoping to maybe get some… clarification, I suppose. I guess I either politely disagree or don’t understand your perspective on language. I’m sorry if this is muddled, but please bare with me =P
    Sam Harris said this: “That’s why I think identity politics is so toxic in my view, ’cause if identity is paramount, communication is impossible; like because you haven’t shared my specific experience or you don’t have the same skin color, same gender, there’s no bridge between us. And there’s no chain of reasoning from you to me, that should trump anything I currently think because what I think is anchored to identity, and we don’t share an identity.” I don’t think that the issue is language failing us, so much as us misusing language. Perhaps I simply don’t see the virtue or vice in defining oneself; public ‘identity’ boiled down is an oversimplified label and the altogether more important private ‘identity’ is clearly another thing entirely. I reserve language, in this context, for the argument itself and delving into the conflict of opposing opinions, trying to find that balance in a reconciliation of opposites. More often than not, solutions tend to be more ‘both/and’ rather than an ‘either/or’, you know?
    But you’re afraid of language confining you beyond mere public identity and into intent, correct? That is more dangerous. Going back to adorable puppy owner above, I understand the fear, after all, by writing about this he has messily scrawled ‘left wing drivel’ across your post and tossed it to the wayside, without considering your cause or your case. I still don’t agree that that’s language failing us, by the way. I think it’s a failure of empathy. You see, I can empathize with you, Alex Press, as a person, but that doesn’t change anything, does it? People like the aforementioned detractors, they do not empathize with you. They do not care about you, and they will continue to scowl about your ‘perpetual victimhood’ and ‘excuses’. What they do care about, however, are the issues. Ask any conservative what they think about women being sexually abused and they will respond with the same disgust and anger you feel. We don’t disagree that things must change. We disagree on HOW they must change. Because while the left is putting out individuals’ (victims’) stories about how society failed them, the right is infuriated about how the individual (criminal) fails society.
    When I was younger I considered the ‘right’ and ‘left’ of the political spectrum to be literal, and as I age, I find myself reverting back to that mindset. We all agree on the important bits; we just see things from different angles. Left sees a victim and wishes to champion that person, and maybe it’s misguided, by having them tell their story for all to hear. Right sees the criminal and wishes to crucify that person, and maybe it’s misguided, by coldly analyzing the evidence and letting a judge be the final word on the subject. We all want the bad guy to suffer. We all want the victim to heal.
    The words we use to express that may differ, but again, blaming language isn’t the answer. And I can’t help but feel that fear-mongering isn’t either. It’s okay to be afraid; it is not okay to stay that way. Your post ends rather hopeless, and I don’t understand that. You have the freedom to write this, to reach the masses, and yet, you still say that language is failing. I don’t believe you. You wrote this post because, whether you say it or not, you believe in the power of language. So do I. I’m grateful you wrote this, because the only way to make progress is together and we learn the most from people who challenge our beliefs.
    But to clarify: which is it, are your words, our shared language, freeing you or failing you? Because it cannot be both.

    Thank you for reading my obnoxiously long ramble =P

    Liked by 10 people

  5. Very insightful. I like the nuance brought up between the idea of Fear vs Anxiety vs Panic. In the current setting, it seems much easier to promote fear mongering (be it of a specific item or just a nameless Other) and some media thrive on it, unfortunately…

    Liked by 6 people

  6. Nice reflection! “We are not free to choose. No matter which way we move, we act out stereotypes.” Yes, this plagues my mind at times. How free are actions really are. Also, I wonder if the lack of fear as a child that you mention has to do with being a child with lack of awareness about the wildness of the world. It seems age-old, adults talking about how much simpler life had been in the past. Is that only a reflection of our individual experience? It seems to me that society’s ills, dangers, fears, etc. are always present, but different, marked by the century or time of occurrence — if that makes sense.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. That totally makes sense! I think that modern-day teenagers don’t face the normal pressure that the previous generation felt. This time is different because the internet forces the world to see its problems every day. These problems have always existed but the current youth are going to have to fix it because it is now known to everyone.

      Liked by 6 people

    2. As a GenX child, I was extremely ignorant and oblivious about things to be feared in the world, real and imagined. My sense is this was true of most people of my generation and of older generations. There simply wasn’t pervasive, non-stop, and instant access media back then. In being a kid decades ago, it was rather easy to ignore the news and politics.

      That is no longer true with 24/7 news, social media, and the internet. The youth of today are so much more aware and informed (as well as disinformed) about the world, both nationally and internationally. Every major scandal or violent action that happens anywhere is immediately known.

      Liked by 5 people

  7. the nano-level robot attack “threatens the security of us all,” reads a joint statement from Prime Minister Okita and the leaders of Nippanese Monchuria and West Siam

    Liked by 6 people

  8. awareness about the wildness of the world.awareness about the wildness of the world.Very insightful. I like the nuance brought up between the idea of Fear vs Anxiety vs Panic

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Mass hysteria. It is kind of entertaining to watch from a far in the dark corners of my mind. After all, it’s not me that’s crazy, it’s everyone else, right? Maybe we need to chem trail some LSD and yank the world out of their subjective worlds. No that would be too much fun 😂😂.

    Great read, thank you.

    Liked by 6 people

  10. What I worry about is fear is more easily and effectively used toward furthering oppression than to gaining freedom and fairness.

    I’m old enough to remember a carefree childhood. But in my youth, there were moral panics and my generation was scapegoated with all kinds of fear-mongering. At the time, this led to tough-on-crime laws and mass incarceration but also to paranoia about Satanic child sacrifices along with false accusations of child abuse that led to innocents being incarcerated.

    My childhood was carefree partly because I was ignorant of what was going on in the world around me and what had happened in the era before my birth, such as how accusations of sexual misconduct or deviancy were used as punishment and social control. Many lives over recent history have been destroyed by fear-mongering and moral panics, especially during the Cold War when oppressive paranoia was turned up high.

    Is the world really all that different now? Have we learned any lessons? Maybe or maybe not. At times, I feel something akin to that old Cold War mood settling back on the public mind, as the War on Terror turns into something much darker with threats of geopolitical conflict wafting on the air.

    So, I’m not sure what conclusion we should entertain in this new moment of fear, of panic and paranoia. But I’m not feeling confident that it will necessarily end well. On the other hand, I can see some positive shifts beneath the obsessions of social media and the short attention span of the news cycle. Maybe the only way forward is through the darkness.

    Liked by 5 people

  11. Nice. This was amazing… Thought provoking and a good read… I saw a lot through what you wrote… Although looks like I’m beginning to forget the lines…. Too bad right?? Well I will go back to read it again… Men I have to..

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Thank you for this. I agree completely, and have been writing about these issues with reference to women and foreigners in the Italian context (https://sarahmente.wordpress.com/, if you’re interested!). It’s all very well to speak of integration and equality, but if the “violence of identity” is committed against us, then it’s clear that a lot more and extensive work needs to be done… I believe that mutual knowledge and understanding, through writing, can help dispel the fear to some extent, as it becomes clear that we’re all just humans seeking essentially the same things… thank you again for your insight.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Yes. Fear is a exudes almost every story that emerges these Trumpian days. The #metoo I see as a reaction to past fear. A way of putting that fear away.

    But what I think of often is that we are so inundated with fearful stories, stories that should make us fear we will become more of an tyranny, even less of a democracy, and stories that normalize children getting shot my assault rifles, and stories about how we have to argue about whether it’s a good idea for people to have rifles only designed to kill massive amount of people, that fear becomes the norm and the whole thing doesn’t feel so fearful any longer.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Awesome post! “Why speak when no one listens?” – I think this is something that resonates with a lot of us and tends to perpetuate constant fear. Continue to be fearless and strong!!

    Like

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