Wednesday, May 28, 2014

perceptions, masculinity, and politicizing tragedy: some thoughts without conclusions


"Is it safe in the U.S.?"

Last year, I helped a Jordanian friend apply for a Fulbright to America. The application form asks where applicants would be willing to live: urban or rural? Diverse or homogeneous? East Coast, West Coast, South, or Midwest? My friend asked where would be the safest. He'd heard about shootings in the U.S., and--even though he lives a few hours south of one of the world's most vicious warzones--he perceived America as considerably less safe. 

Violence speaks louder than peace, and violence in America (particularly white, affluent America) speaks louder than violence elsewhere. Later that month, I sat in Syrian refugees' apartment in Amman, watching coverage of the Boston bombings on Al-Arabiyya. One minute I saw images of Boston on lockdown; the next, I saw images of carnage in Syria. It was surreal.

A life is a life, and tragedy absolutely deserves coverage no mater where it happens. I understand that the shock value of violence in ordinarily peaceful places--like Boston or Isla Vista--will get disproportionate attention relative to, say, war in the Central African Republic or gang violence in South Central LA. Lots of ethical implications here, but also questions about how America is being presented to the world, and about how the world is being presented to America. For pithy, pertinent comic relief, click here.


The Isla Vista shootings dominate my newsfeed. (Sidenote: I'm incredibly grateful to have a bunch of smart, thoughtful friends who curate the news for me.) I'm reading lots of articles about gun legislation, feminism, and--a welcome addition!--masculinity. It feels a little gross to intellectualize tragedy but, I suppose, it's also a way of dignifying its severity. More on that below.

For now, I'm appreciating discussions of women's safety considered in the context of masculinity and its perversions. I get the sense that we talk about "what it means to be a woman" more than "what it means to be a man." This is unfortunate because, ultimately, a safer, fairer world demands a re-evaluation of how society treats women and men. No amount of activism against harassment or unequal pay can achieve success without also considering the ways in which society hurts/devalues men. Guys are much more likely to commit suicide, be sent to die in wars, and be told not to feel.  Don't get me wrong: the world's a crueler place for women, hands down. (If you have any doubts, check out #YesAllWomen.) That said, this can't be fixed without dealing with the world's cruelty to men, as well. They're inextricably linked.

I sometimes worry that discussions of misogyny leave out discussions of masculinity, dangerously characterizing the problem as a battle of women vs. men. But there are no trade-offs here; consideration of gender as a whole can be a win-win. In fact, I'd argue, it's the only way forward.

Within the context of the Isla Vista shooting, accessible articles like this one and this one break down the ways in which societal pressures on guys may contribute to a less-safe world for women.  So while I'm fiercely supportive of women-centered groups like HollaBack and HarassMap, I suspect their goals are best achieved when also engaging men and tackling masculinity.

Politicizing tragedy (and communicating in general).

When the news reports something sad, and the sad thing validates one of my policy preferences, I'm tempted to get political. Destroy all guns! (And sharp objects!) End all wars! Eat less meat! So while I hope that times of crisis can promote dialogue, I also recognize my own tendency to slip into emotional justifications of things I already believe in.

One realization keeps me (somewhat) in check: emotional arguments rally natural allies, but rarely engage people with different opinions. Rallying post-tragedy feels opportunistic; engaging, on the other hand, has the potential to be productive. So that's my goal these days. Wish me luck.

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