Silence is Deafening, Even in a Vocal Crowd

The infamous “hot mic” recording of Donald Trump bragging to Billy Bush about the various ways he’s forced himself upon women is now more than a week old, but it’s lurid shock-waves continue to reverberate. (NBC fired Billy Bush just yesterday). In the intervening days, I have applauded public figures who have denounced Trump’s behavior as inexcusable and unacceptable. I have “liked” a number of posts by friends on Facebook, especially female friends, rebuking his misogyny. I have cheered the pundits who have criticized politicians for couching their disapproval of Trump in terms of familial relationship (i.e., “as the father of [insert number] daughters, I am deeply offended…”) as if women’s value and self-respect somehow derive from their male relatives. I have also cringed as a handful of political surrogates, partisans, and (most abhorrent of all) religious leaders have either defended the Republican nominee or dismissed the recording as much ado about nothing. “It’s just ‘locker room talk,’ like he said.” “Bill Clinton did much worse” – you know, because Clinton’s philandering should clearly excuse Trump’s, or anyone else’s. Rush Limbaugh even went so far as to reject the very idea of consent as left-wing propaganda.

Yet, in my own words, I have said nothing publicly. Today I want to remedy that. I need to remedy that.

This has been my reasoning: “What can I add to the conversation? What can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said?” I’ve never engaged in this type of behavior. I agree that Trump’s acts, and his boasting about those acts, are both appalling. My wife knows that. My friends know that. Trump is flailing and failing in his retorts because there is no defense for either his behavior or his attitude. When something is indefensible, there is only so much that can be said about it. What would my repetition of these condemnations accomplish that hasn’t already been accomplished?

Well, one thing it will accomplish is to add my voice to the chorus of critics. Even if I don’t have anything new to say, my voice makes the chorus louder and more formidable. This is a chorus that needs to be as sonic as it possibly can be.

Another thing it will accomplish is to make me personally accountable for furthering the cause of gender equality, not just cheering it on.

Behavior like Trump’s persists because too many men, as well as too many women, remain silent about sexual harassment. We know why women often remain silent. They feel ashamed and embarrassed, and they know from centuries of experience that nothing consequential is likely to happen to the perpetrator. Instead, their stories will be questioned. Their dress, their body image, and their body language will all be scrutinized. And for their courage in speaking out they’ll be rewarded with the ongoing suggestion that they “must have done something” to bring this upon themselves.

Men remain silent for different reasons. Sometimes we don’t speak up because doing so would involve standing up to a friend, co-worker, or a boss and we simply don’t want to strain those relationships or jeopardize our careers. Sometimes we simply don’t see the more subtle acts of sexism for what they are. Other times we actually remain silent because we consider ourselves feminists. I know that’s why I personally have remained silent in the past. I admire the women around me. I see them as smart and strong and capable as well as beautiful. So, even when I’ve noticed the odd sexist comment or chauvinistic gesture at the office or in the church, I’ve typically let it slide because I’ve assumed that these smart, strong, liberated women will say something if it’s truly a problem. Or I’ve left it to my wife and others to “stand up for themselves,” because I believe they can and they should, because I’ve come to believe that a woman really does need a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

And I’ve been wrong – not about women, but about the nature of sexism. Even as deep into the 21st century as we are, sexism isn’t a series of isolated incidents here and there, like shooting stars that zing across the sky once in a rare while; it’s a smog-like haze that never fully lifts in a woman’s world. Sexual harassment, in particular, is so much more pervasive than I’ve wanted to believe, because it’s about power as much as sex. It’s about sending clear patriarchal signals that, even if women are smart and strong and capable, they still exist primarily for men’s enjoyment, and they still don’t have the right to be fully present in the world except on men’s terms. @kellyoxford pulled back the veil on this toxic reality the day the Trump tape first leaked, when she asked women to Tweet their first experience of sexual assault. At one point, she received fifty tweets per minute – for fourteen straight hours.

So, every time I’ve let those sexist comments and gestures slide, even for “feminist reasons,” I’ve sided with the sexists. Every time I’ve chuckled at “locker room talk,” (much, much tamer than what Trump contends was just “locker room talk”), I’ve tacitly condoned rape culture. Every time I’ve applauded someone else’s stand against misogyny while I myself have remained seated, I’ve felt good but I’ve done little (if anything) to actually help advance the cause of equality.

That’s why, even if it’s a little late, speaking up is something important for me, personally, to do here and now. What Donald Trump said on that tape is reprehensible. At a minimum, he needs to apologize to and ask forgiveness directly from each and every woman he has molested.

And in the future, * I * need to speak out more quickly whenever women are objectified or patronized. All men need to, if we truly believe in equality.  It’s easy to pretend patriarchy isn’t really our problem, because we’re “not like that.” We’re enlightened and progressive. Nevertheless, the lust – both the carnal lust and the lust for superiority – that undergirds patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism resides in the male psyche, not the female body, and that makes it our problem. It makes it our responsibility. We need to own it and deal with it at the source.

This is especially true for those of us who claim to be disciples of Christ Jesus. There’s an old bumper sticker that reads: “Feminism is the radical idea that women are people.” Christians should take this assertion one step further, because the gospel contains the radical idea that women are people created in the image of God. Who would ever talk about God the way Trump talked about Nancy O’Dell – or defend someone who did? I wonder.

So, men of the world: we need to speak up, each one of us, each and every time sexism rears its devilish head – individually and collectively. We need to check ourselves each and every day. We need to talk to, talk about, and interact with women as people made, like us, in the image of God. If we long to see a world in which women and men are truly equal, that’s the only way it will happen.

The cause of equality needs more than our applause or our thumbs up on Facebook.

A Watchman for Our Souls

On Tuesday, author and journalist Neely Tucker sat down with Kojo Nnambdi to discuss the release of Harper Lee’s new/old novel, Go Set a Watchman. I had seen the controversy over the characterization of Atticus Finch brewing online since the Wall Street Journal published the first chapter of Watchman last Friday. However, I was unfamiliar with the questionable circumstances surrounding the book’s release. Biographers, close friends, and serious fans of Harper Lee have known about Watchman’s existence for decades, according to Tucker. Yet, Tonja Carter, a lawyer from Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, AL, claimed to have “discovered” the “lost” manuscript when news about Watchman first broke. As the story goes, Carter showed the book to Lee, who enthusiastically endorsed its publication after all these years, even though the aged author suffers from impaired hearing and eyesight as well as the lingering effects of a recent stroke.

These circumstances, combined with the novel’s history, yield a curious mix of fascination and bewilderment. What is this story, exactly, and why now? Chronologically, Watchman takes place twenty years after To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s being published fifty-five years after Mockingbird. But Watchman was written first – essentially as a draft of the story that became To Kill a Mockingbird. Thus, Watchman is neither prequel nor sequel nor spinoff. It’s an alternate universe of sorts. Tucker compares the revelations about Atticus Finch’s prejudice in Watchman to James Bond fans learning that 007 has been a KGB double agent all along. No wonder it has many interested readers baffled.

Personally, I was planning to ignore the book. But thanks to Kojo’s interview with Tucker, I now plan to read it. I plan to read it because I’m beginning to wonder if the novel’s publication at this point in American history is, despite the controversy, serendipitous. Watchman may prove to be the book White America needs in order to have the conversation about race and racism that we need to have. Here’s the segment of the Tucker interview that changed my mind:

Tucker: “In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch has regressed, devolved from being that [heroic] character [from To Kill a Mockingbird] to being a petty bigot and racist…. [W]hile he might not have wanted Tom Robinson, the black man unjustly charged with raping a white woman in To Kill a Mockingbird…. taken out and lynched, he absolutely, it turns out in Watchman, wanted him to be and every other Black character to be kept in their place.”

“You’ll remember this last scene, it’s this iconic moment, particularly in the movie with Gregory Peck, where he fights this doomed battle to win Robinson an acquittal, and he’s walking out of the courtroom and all of the Black people in the little town of Maycomb are up there in the balcony, right, where they have to sit by segregation and Scout is up there with them at 9-years-old, and one of the people prods her and says, ‘Stand up, Scout. Your Daddy’s passing.’ And it turns out in this book that’s where Atticus Finch thought all those Black people should be. It’s incredibly bitter.”

More than bitter, the idea that Atticus Finch, of all people, could be racist is appalling to the American conscience – especially the educated, White, affluent, liberal American conscience. It’s appalling because all of us would like to think we’re Atticus Finch at heart. If we had lived “back then,” we’d have been brave and noble and not the least bit bigoted, just like him. We like to think that about our lives even now. We voted for Obama. We’re outraged at the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and countless others. We make copious use of #blacklivesmatter on Twitter and Facebook. We cheer the removal of the Confederate Flag from state capitol grounds. We read books and attend conferences on the topic of “social justice.” We may even belong to monthly book clubs that discuss such books, volunteer with the Boys and Girls Club, and participate in the occasional voting rights protest. There couldn’t possibly be a tinge of racism in our hearts or minds. #WeAreAtticusFinch

And yet, by some estimates, 90% of White US citizens have never been inside an African-American home. One study reveals that “the more highly educated and progressive-sounding US Whites are, the less likely they are to be in racially mixed churches or neighborhoods.” [1] For all our “progress,” most of what has changed in recent years is not the way we live, but the way we “speak in public.” [2]

So, yes, Watchman reveals that we are Atticus Finch. We will unabashedly give voice to the cause of justice and disavow systemic racism. But that doesn’t mean we’ve left segregation behind.

Hopefully, the disconcerting appearance of Go Set a Watchman will challenge us to look deeper into ourselves and probe uncomfortable truths concerning the subtle and sinister nature of prejudice. We’ve disposed of the “Whites Only” signs in restaurants and schools. Now, we must confront the unmarked balconies that remain attached to our souls – our individual souls, and our collective, American soul – if we wish to sustain, much less further, the cause of Civil Rights. We must be honest with ourselves that, for even the most boisterous, self-professed progressives among us, we still harbor notions that Black people “should be” in certain places and not others. When we “didn’t expect” our new doctor to be Black, or gaze with curiosity as a Range Rover rounds the corner with a Black couple inside, that’s our inner Atticus wondering what they’re doing out of the balcony. It’s a phenomenon former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey describes as “a deeply ingrained and unexamined notion of racial difference now based in culture as opposed to biology, a milder yet novel version of white supremacy manifest in, for example, racial profiling, unfair and predatory lending practices, disparate incarceration rates, residential and school segregation, discriminatory employment practices and medical racism.” [3]

Perhaps if we can grapple with Atticus’ ironic racism in Go Set a Watchman, we can begin to come to grips with our own. Whether we want to admit it or not, the reason Walter Scott was disgracefully shot in cold blood is directly related to the reason why he doesn’t live next door. To abolish incidents of the former, we will have to deal with the latter.

#WeAreAtticusFinch

__________________________________

[1] Mary McClintock Fulkerson, Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 16.

[2] Ibid, 15-16

[3] Natasha Trethewey, “Lee’s ‘Watchman’ demotes Atticus from god to man,” The Washington Post, July 14, 2015.

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