In Faith, I do not Know Thee by Thy Name

In my recent article for The Border House I took on a number of the arguments made by a few starry eyed technophiles in favour of ending the practise of online anonymity. This is a significant issue for me that, in its many facets, presents me with the ultimate intersectional landscape on which to grow my ideas about interpersonal politics. In other words, it is very easy to talk about sex, race, power, class, and a range of issues surrounding both individual and group behaviour (group psychology and sociology), identity, and just plain old techno-geekery. It touches on a myriad of issues that are important to me.

What follows is a refinement of what I wrote for The Border House and an expansion of it.

I.- Setting Information Free(?)

It is very much worth mentioning that the central idea behind the anti-anonymity advocate’s vision is the firm belief that the death of anonymity will allow information to flow more freely. The reality, however, is that the end of anonymity means a significant lever of personal control will be wrenched away.

To explain what I mean by this I should go into greater detail about the nature of the information being hotly debated at the moment. Invariably the two pieces of information most prized by the Zuckerbergs and their ideological fellow travellers are, in order of importance: legal names and recent, tasteful photographs. This is what I’ve long referred to as “driver’s licence info” and it is information of a very particular and discrete (if not discreet) type. Driver’s licence information actually has very little to do with your personality and who you are as a person. Such information can, in the case of some, affirm who they are (such as in the case of us trans folk) but even that is only the result of the primacy placed on this otherwise relatively un-telling data.

The reason it is so vitally important, the reason it is fought over like the bloodied scrap of earth it is, is because people in power have made that information a matter of life and death.

A name is what you decide to call yourself, and secondarily what others agree to call you. The ‘legal’ codification of it was merely a forerunner to the 20th century invention of serial numbers which are used to ‘identify’ us ever more finely as the owner of a legally sanctioned identity. Legal names are the foundation of this particular form of identification and are the essence of it. Their legality arises from governmental sanction, but it says nothing immediately genuine about who you are. The reason my own name speaks so powerfully to me is because I chose it. I sought to have it legally recognised because in our society where legal names are gold standards and wherein we must all have one, I felt the most self-empowering thing I could do would be to choose it. So indeed I have and my name is now recognised at various levels of officialdom.

But it was no less mine and no less true to me when it lacked legal recognition. It was my name from the moment I chose it in the company of a dear friend as I tepidly set out to claim a name as my own for the first time in my life. If anything my old legal name actually signal-jammed a good deal of truth that may have eminated from me years sooner, and equally blocked a lot that I might have otherwise taught myself. Obviously my old name was not solely responsible for this– a welter of other social conditions played their parts– but it had a starring role to play. We can discuss and debate the particulars but the fundaments of the matter are these:

My old legal name hid far more than it revealed, hindered more than it helped, and stifled far more than it liberated.

In other words it was actually an impediment to the free flow of information for it to be known and in the public record. It was an obstacle to me forging my own identity, right up to the multiple legal rigamaroles I had to endure in order to change it publicly.

Forcing me into a particular ‘legal identity’ closed doors, it did not open them. Who, precisely, is Mark Zuckerberg to adjudicate on which name is a person’s true name? These legal names are important, yes, but only for the same reason that, say, the institution of marriage is important: so many unjust privileges are bound up in it that we cannot help but pay close attention to its use. For precisely that same reason control of that information must remain in the hands of those with the least power. More broadly, it should remain in the hands of those who are the rightful adjudicators of such information: the people themselves.

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Going Public: The Silences in the Shadows of Privacy

Trigger Warning: Discussions of rape and sexual harassment.

It was a whisper, a murmuring, but an audible one in a few news outlets ranging from the BBC to the New Yorker. A recognition of something oft unregarded, unreported, and unnoticed.

The rafts of journalism produced by the case of IMF Chairman and Socialist party patriarch Dominique Strauss-Kahn has taken a variety of angles on his alleged rape of a hotel chambermaid in New York City except that which may matter most: the perspective of the maid herself. The whisper and murmur I heard was the fact that journalists were noticing this. Philip Gourevitch of the New Yorker said the following in his blog about the French reaction to the rape case:

Listening to the political classes attempting to come to terms with the destruction of Dominique Strauss-Kahn today, I heard hardly a thought for his accuser. It seemed a good measure of the depth of France’s political malaise that it took a Le Pen to show solidarity with the working woman against the Socialist Party’s favorite son.

Emphasis mine. This is the great invisible wall of silence that surrounds rape in our society and puts the lie to any notion that men accused of rape are automatically condemned at the end of a woman’s pointed finger. That a few journalists are at last speaking about this, albeit in hushed tones tucked at the end of articles, is heartening. But it calls attention to the glaring absence of concern for the victims of rape, or even those who- in the public eye- come to be known by the title of “accuser” with all of its hectoring, negative connotations.

In all of the commentary out of France over the last few days what we have seen in cavalcades of speech and soundbites is concern for the IMF, for the reputation of France, for the fate of the Socialist Party. Yet none have said, even with due deference and qualified tones, something to the effect of: “if the accusations prove true, my heart goes out to the victim of this horrendous assault.” We are instead fed the lie that “innocent until proven guilty” or scrupulous neutrality in general means to assume that Strauss-Kahn is the victim of some set-up. To dare to suggest that it is, in fact, likely he raped that young chambermaid is to be hopelessly biased. To say you believe a conspiracy has netted him and that he’s just not that kind of guy- as many French politicians across its political spectrum have- is ‘neutral’ and ‘unbiased’ thinking.

To clutch one’s pearls about France’s reputation but not spare a thought for one moment that this young woman’s reputation may be forever tarnished by this case is supposedly fair and balanced.

To look at the comment sections of many news websites is to find armies of people- mostly men if the screen names are any guide- saying that Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proven guilty, propounding on their virtuous fairness and neutrality, refusing to rush to judgement and so forth. All while saying that some invisible mass, some nebulous powerful force, is presuming him guilty. It is difficult to fathom what it is these people are seeing when most commentary on these articles appears to assume Strauss-Kahn is innocent. As has been said, it is no more neutral to say you believe he didn’t do it and that such a crime is ‘far fetched’ than it is for me to suggest it is, in fact, very likely.

Strauss-Khan has a reputation of sorts. Ironically this is being touted as precisely the reason it would make sense to ‘set him up’ with a false rape accusation. It’s a nightmare that the man himself nursed according to an interview with the newspaper Libération:

Strauss-Kahn then volunteered to the journalists a hypothetical example of something that could bring him down: “A woman raped in a parking lot who is promised half a million euros to make up her story.”

Yet this is rarely described as ‘far fetched’ and ‘fanciful’- even though it is. Malicious false rape accusations- charges made by a woman who knows she was not raped, and is intentionally setting up a man- are exceedingly rare[1]. 500,000 Euros is rather a pittance for leaping headfirst into the jaws of a misogynist media that will eviscerate, with glee, a lying temptress- the figure of many a male nightmare. Most women, even those who have not been harassed, assaulted, or raped, know all too well that there is no joy in dealing with the criminal justice system (whatever country they may live in) when it comes to charging a man as their assailant. To say nothing of that fact that generally women are simply disbelieved. We are the “accusers,” magically transmuted into the active one doing something to a man, rather than reporting something done to us. This is, again, considered a scrupulously neutral posture on the subject.

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Ignorance and Want

Trigger Warning for explicit discussion of rape and its attendant traumas.

Rape culture is an institution, to be certain; one whose powerful manifestations and expressions are found in all too many quarters of our society and whose influence is wide as it is deep. But like any social phenomenon one is well advised to take a magnifying glass to the small drops of mortar that bind together the brick wall of this institution. In reading a thread on a popular website about rape, a woman, who has since deleted her account due to the shaming she endured, stepped forward to make passionate arguments against rape apologism. Eventually she would describe her own experience. I do not have her permission to republish her story, so I will only quote a powerful line from her post that speaks to a general experience:

Have you ever been raped? Do you know what it feels like to be turned into someone else’s object? The worst is how filthy you’ll feel after. You just want to be clean. You want to die, you want to be alone and scream in utter agony. You want to be skinned alive because that’s the only way to get the filth off of your skin and out of you. Despite all this, you’re brave enough to make your way to the police station. You’re alone, you don’t want your friends to see you like this. You’ve got cold cum congealing on your inner thigh and bruises on your neck and wrists. You feel disgusting. You are at the lowest point you’ve ever been.

This began a powerful piece that told the story of her experience levelling an accusation against her rapist, a young man who- in a rather shocking and thoroughly unexpected turn of events- was so popular that the police officer she spoke to warned her off pressing charges lest she “ruin his life.” Popular, well-liked and talented men, after all, do not rape. Their victims, meanwhile, are silenced and shamed into invisibility and forced into finding a way to negotiate with their pain on their own terms as best they can.

Their lives are forever changed while their rapist walks free, unaccounted for, and nowhere near as scarred as his victim. We rightly heap scorn on the people who rape: I myself spared no kind language for the rapist of my friend in last night’s article, calling him a bastard. No words in our tongue are too unkind for him and his ilk. But rape culture is not just about the people who rape. It’s about the vast networks of social support that underlie those incidents of rape, that condemn rape when ‘the perfect rapist’ rapes ‘the perfect victim’ but otherwise excuse, deny, encourage and otherwise call into existence the circumstances that make rape inevitable. To illustrate one manifestation of this that will be the subject of today’s piece, let me quote to you one man’s response to this woman’s moving story on that same site:

One bigoted small-town police officer can’t be representative of the entire society. and there are hotlines and such, etc.

I really hope nobody thinks, “wow, Internet people really don’t take rape seriously. I shouldn’t even try to report it.”

That’s it. That’s all he could muster in response to a lengthy and detailed story of pain. As I read this, blinking, I wondered at whether or not he was moved but could not bring himself to say so. I wondered if he was like Ebeneezer Scrooge, beholding the metaphorical urchins of Ignorance and Want and haunted by his past tirades of “are there no prisons!? Are there no workhouses!?”

“Are there no hotlines and such?” is about the only way I could read that dismissive post, a small effort to banish from this man’s sight the horrible thing that had just manifested itself before him- the ugliness and sheer horror of rape, spoken with certainty by an eloquent survivor. Shocked as surely as Scrooge was shocked when the Ghost of Christmas Present revealed those urchins, shocked by being confronted with the underside of a society that he prefers to ignore and yet has to exist in order for him to enjoy the comforts and privileges he does. This woman dared to show him and all he could do was ask “Are there no hotlines?”

He asks this because he will not face up to the terrible truth that this bigoted small town police officer is a very common character in the narratives of rape survivors. Their dismissals, their bigotry, their scorn and heartlessness are enabled by people thinking that surely most police officers and people in general would be incapable of this. Bigotry is an evil contained only in a few bad individuals, after all.

Are there no hotlines?

This woman bares her soul and she finds only a feeble response that all but mocks how a survivor might feel on stumbling onto the all too copious and common words of pitiable fools on the Internet. They’re “Internet people”- which means they aren’t real, right? They aren’t part of our society, they do not socialise within it, they do not vote or otherwise have an impact on their social worlds. They are merely “Internet people” and if a rape survivor finds herself triggered or wounded, reminded of the shame and the filth that is made to cling to her when one of these “Internet people” pours misogynist scorn upon those who dare to survive and dare to say they have been raped… well she’s just being silly, isn’t she?

After all, are there no hotlines?

To pick up that phone as your hand shakes, as you find yourself struggling to not take up a knife instead of a mobile, is an exercise in will whose difficulty is hard to quantify. To do this means something critical that this man completely elided: you have to admit that you were raped and that you belong to the class of people these hotlines were designed for. Admitting that takes some people months, even years. Admitting it makes you part of that shamed class of people, opening yourself up to incessant second guessing by everyone around you, even those who may call themselves feminist will eventually be guilty of doing this to someone. Far easier, one thinks, to pretend one was not raped in the hopes that the pain will go away. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t because one does not heal by giving a patriarchal society the silence it begs for.

Are there no hotlines?

This also says nothing of the fact the resources that do exist for rape survivors are not distributed equally. As Sady Doyle has pointed out, RAINN, one of the largest anti-rape organisations in the United States, supports organisations that deny assistance to transsexual and transgender women. To be trans in this society is to court shame already, you grow up being told none too subtly that your identity makes you a freak, unworthy of life. To add being raped to this is beyond unbearable, it is a pain that these foregoing words do a poor job of describing but that I have seen first hand in my own life through those I love most. The anguish that comes with admitting you’ve been raped is already hard. Doing so when your rape was framed by your rapist as gleeful transphobia is even harder. You know right away that even if you live in some supposed oasis that white cis progressives adore, like Portland, Toronto, New York, or San Francisco, that you will deal with police officers who will automatically assume the worst of you, who think you’re a lunatic just for being trans, and that your rape was just desserts for being such a freak.

But after all, are there no hotlines?

Are there no laws?

Are there no crisis centres?

On and on the echoes can go, and it is quite clear, as it was in the case of Ebenezer Scrooge that the pitiable questions that queried about ‘some resource’ were a feeble effort at ignoring social responsibility and the enormity of the great crisis before him that his wealth was, in part, responsible for. The existence of rape culture is everyone’s responsibility. Through feeble gestures like that of the gentleman whose words I’ve mocked throughout this piece we try to deflect responsibility, whether we are women or men, cis or trans, we may find ourselves doing this. Let the hotlines take care of the poor victims, let the law take care of the evil people who rape. Just like a nice and neat Law & Order: SVU episode the drama is over at an appointed time, the TV set is switched off, and we go on with our lives. Any time a thought of the want and ignorance in the rape culture of our society intrudes upon our minds we can simply hum to ourselves:

Well, are there no hotlines?