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.
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