Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Rape, Murder, and Free Speech: Reflections on "Vaginagate."

Since my blog doesn’t run on deadlines--and since blogging has to take a back seat to professional responsibilities and parenting--I don’t always get to hot stories while they’re hot. I think this is likely a good thing, because when I let my thinking gestate for awhile I often find myself with more meaningful things to say--even if what I have to say may enjoy a smaller audience than it might have otherwise.

This is true of one of the hottest news items from a few weeks back, the one that earned the juicy name “Vaginagate.” I think this is one of the most interested stories of recent weeks, not because it was juicy (yes, I’ve said “juicy” twice now—get over it), but because it illuminates some very interesting features of our current political and cultural conflicts. And because, in a way, it's a story about stories.

Here are the facts in brief: In the Michigan House of Representatives, Democratic Rep. Lisa Brown spoke in opposition to a bill that would make abortions harder to procure—and concluded her remarks by saying, "I'm flattered you're all so concerned about my vagina. But no means no." (More details can be found here and here.)

As a result of this remark, she was barred from speaking on the house floor the following day (a colleague was also barred, for comments that mentioned vasectomies). One Republican Representative, Mike Callton, in defending the censure, stated that he found her remarks “so offensive, I don't even want to say it in front of women.”

The censure—not the original comment that inspired it, but the punitive response—generated widespread coverage and enormous discussion in social media. Early the following week,
a protest performance of The Vagina Monologues was staged on the steps of the Michigan Statehouse. Rep. Brown participated, along with the author of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler, who flew in for the occasion.

Those are the most salient details of what happened—details that have been pieced together in various and competing ways. Some narratives on the left make it about prudishness in the face of technical language referencing sexual organs. Others, on the right, offer a narrative according to which the problem was not the use of the term "vagina," but Rep. Brown's blatant disrespect of her colleagues in suggesting that they had some kind of prurient and obsessive interest in her vagina.

Both stories may have something to them, but I don't think either one is the most interesting story, or the reason why this story captured so much attention. To me, what makes this story most interesting is that, as I suggested above, it's a story about stories. More precisely, it's a story about the competing abortion narratives we have in this country, and the difficulty that some partisans have of appreciating or taking seriously the narrative offered by the other side.

The right and the left have very different narratives about abortion and the effort to regulate it. On the right, abortion is construed as a form of homocide, and abortion regulations are attempts to protect unborn children from being killed. Since Roe v. Wade has made it impossible simply to outlaw the killing of unborn babies, conservative state legislators have sought ways to find a next-best alternative—ways of creating hurdles and constraints on the pursuit of abortion, thereby protecting the lives of vulnerable children. According to this narrative, abortion foes are engaged in an heroic struggle to save a vulnerable population from being killed in numbers rivaling the exterminations of the Holocaust.

The basis for equating abortion and homocide (even murder) is fairly straightforward: the assumption is that the fetus is not fundamentally different from a child. "Human life begins at conception"--or more precisely, the moral significance that the lives of children and adults enjoy begins at conception (or not long thereafter). And so there is a wrong done when a fetus's life is deliberately taken that is comparable to the wrong we all agree is done when a small child or baby is killed. The justifications for this view are varied, many bound up with controversial religious narratives; but even if these justifications are contested, the basic perspective from which abortion would be seen as murder is, I think, pretty clear. Most can understand it even if they don't accept it.

On the left, the moral significance of the fetus's life is far more ambiguous. Views about it vary. What isn't ambiguous is that a woman's body is involved, and her autonomy with respect to that body is at stake. Abortion regulations are construed as efforts to restrict bodily self-determination—the bodily self-determination of women in particular, and more profoundly with respect to their reproductive choices. And, of course, the paradigmatic example of violating a woman's bodily autonomy with respect to her reproductive choices is nothing other than rape. As such, abortion regulations are construed as akin to rape.

The basic idea--that abortion restrictions violate women's reproductive and bodily autonomy as rape does--should be familiar to most people. But the deeper theoretic underpinnings of this narrative--in feminist thought--are likely to be a bit less clear to general readers. So let me sketch it out as I understand it.

In feminist theory rape has routinely been construed as an especially overt expression of a broader pattern of women’s sexual subordination. Feminists argue that our culture has been powerfully shaped by patriarchy—an historic, systematic hierarchical division of society in which women have been relatively disempowered, both through overt social structures and through more subtle mechanisms such as gender-role socialization. And the chief purpose of this patriarchal system has been to maintain male proprietary control over women’s sexuality—where their “sexuality” includes their bodies as objects of sexual use, but also their power to serve as gestators and nurturers of the children that result from that sexual use.

In this patriarchal context, not all cases of forced sex qualify as rape. Forcible sex happens when either (a) a woman resists the patriarchal forces that are supposed to make her sexually available to the man who has acquired a proprietary claim on her sexuality (through the social conventions of patriarchy) or (b) a particular man who has been excluded from the benefits of patriarchal sexual access, either generally or with respect to a particular woman that he desires, seeks to claim his such access through threats of violence or physical coercion.

In the traditional patriarchal society, only the latter is construed as a transgression to which the label “rape” is treated as appropriate. As such, marital rape wasn’t even recognized as a category until very recently. And from the standpoint of patriarchy, when rape is recognized at all it is primarily construed as a transgression against other men: a man is taking a woman who, according to the rules of the patriarchal social contract, doesn’t rightfully belong to him. The biblical injunctions about rape, such as the one found in Deuteronomy 22:28-29, make sense in this context: A man who rapes an unpledged virgin can make up for his crime by paying off the father (who “owns” his daughter’s sexuality in trust until he gives her away to her future husband) and then marrying his victim and thereby becoming the husband to whom her sexuality rightly belongs.

But even though some forcible sex is considered a transgression, a number of feminist scholars (such as Catharine MacKinnon) argue that it is a transgression that actually serves a function in the system, reinforcing patriarchal control. Because there are rapists out there who are prepared to take any woman who isn’t protected by the proprietary claims of other men, it behooved women to find a good man who’ll take care of her. From my years of prison volunteer work, I know that physically vulnerable young men in prison will often submit to becoming the sexual property of a larger, stronger inmate in order to avoid more violent forms of violation. For at least some feminists, the specter of rape can, in a patriarchal culture, operate in something like that way.

What feminists argue is that this culture of patriarchy, while it has obviously been picked away at at transformed over the years, continues to have significant influence. Cultural patterns that have been established over many centuries can't be wholly undone in a few decades. And while the women’s movement has helped to weaken patriarchy's influence, it has also engendered a strong reactionary response from many of patriarchy's beneficiaries—men in positions of power whose sense of self-worth is bound up with the male privilege that patriarchy bestows.

The current efforts to regulate access to abortion are seen as part of this reactionary response. They're an attempt to re-exert overt dominion over women’s reproductive lives, to use the force of law to control women’s bodies in a symbolically powerful way. If not literally rape, then it is a clear analogue, bound up with the patriarchal oppression of women in the same way that rape is.

This, I think, is the broad narrative out of which Rep. Lisa Brown’s comments arose. And from this standpoint, I was particularly interested in the following piece from the news reports:

House Republicans say they didn't object to her saying "vagina." They said Brown compared the legislation to rape, violating House decorum. She denies the allegation.

"Her comments compared the support of legislation protecting women and life to rape, and I fully support Majority Floor Leader Jim Stamas’ decision to maintain professionalism and order on the House floor," GOP Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, of Alto, said in a statement last week.

The reason for silencing Brown indicated here—the claim that she likened the proposed legislation to rape—seems to be far closer to the truth than the narratives that represent her censure as a bizarre sort of prudishness in the face of the word "vagina." Put another way, Republicans were offended by what Brown said because they correctly discerned what she meant to be accusing them of—and to the extent that Brown denied the charge, she was disingenuous. She may not have intended to say that what they were doing was literally rape. But she surely meant to use rape as a metaphor for what they were doing. She was invoking the broad feminist narrative sketched out above, a narrative which sees abortion regulations and rape as comparable patriarchal tools for controlling women’s sexuality. She saw the legislation as wrong, and wrong for the same general sorts of reasons that rape is wrong.

And she said as much, in a clever and forceful way. And the targets of her accusation were shocked and offended.That said, there is something deeply troubling about the silencing of Brown, especially if done for this reason. While the position she was articulating was controversial, it represents a perspective that surely ought to have a public voice in political deliberations about abortion laws. To silence a controversial political view just because it’s unpopular with the majority—just because, if correct, the view implies that the majority is guilty of a serious wrong—is a very serious breach of the spirit of free speech, even if doing so fell within the legal rights of those who censured Brown.

Imagine that an opponent of legal abortion, confronting legislation that would make abortions easier to procure, stood up in a state legislature and said the following:

"I appreciate that you don't want to be inconvenienced by the survival needs of innocent children, but murders of convenience are still murder. And the German legislators who voted to make the Holocaust easier were complicit in murder even if they never directly killed anyone."

Such a (hypothetical) legislator would be forcefully expressing the abortion narrative that prevails among many on the right. Those on the left may be shocked and offended by having the implications of that narrative articulated so baldly. But if freedom of speech means anything at all, it has to extend to speech expressing ideas that others find offensive. Popular speech doesn't need protecting. What needs protecting is the right to say unpopular things. Nothing is more unpopular, more likely to shock and offend, then an accusation of serious moral wrongdoing.

Of course, gratuitous public accusations of wrongdoing can be restricted as slanderous. But there is a difference between making a claim to the effect that Joe has performed such-and-such act, an act we all agree is seriously wrong, and offering a perspective from which something we all agree Joe has done amounts to a serious wrong. The former might be slanderous if unsupported by evidence. The latter is the sharing of a narrative perspective on what others are in fact doing. And it is precisely such narrative perspectives that guarantees of free speech are supposed to protect. If anything warrants protection, it is our right to weave together from the agreed facts a story that is likely to be unpopular with people in positions of power.

Clearly, this is what Rep. Brown was doing. With a few crisply chosen words she invoked a narrative which construed the actions of her fellow legislators as morally akin to rape. But maybe the legislators didn't get it. Maybe they thought she was literally accusing them, without evidence, of having a prurient interest in her vagina. Perhaps they didn't understand the feminist framework from which the rape comparison makes sense, and so they took her words as an utterly gratuitous and unwarranted attack on their integrity. Such a gratuitious accusation might qualify as a breach of decorum warranting censure.

But, of course, Brown’s comment wasn’t such a gratuitious accusation. It was a short-hand way of sharply invoking a viewpoint that, in a free society, should be part of our public conversation on abortion laws whether we agree with it or not. Could it really be the case that the Republicans in the Michigan House are so disconnected from feminist political theory that they lack the capacity to understand the reference? If this is true, then they silenced a political argument because they honestly mistook it for nothing but a personal insult.

If the Michigan House Republicans really perceived Brown’s comments as a gratuitous put-down without political content, it would seem that they lacked any kind of meaningful grasp on a defining narratives of the political left. They didn’t understand the story Brown was invoking, the story she was telling with a few potent words. If so, the message is that there is a profound disconnect between the narratives that shape political differences on the left and the right. Those on one side of the political divide just don't understand the stories being invoked by those on the other.

The alternative, it seems to me, is to view the Michigan House Republicans as deliberately using their power to restrict which narratives are allowed into a supposedly deliberative democratic process. Could they really care that little about freedom of speech? Neither story is especially appealing. In either case, political division has blocked the capacity of people to engage and wrestle with narratives at odds with their own.

And this, in the end, is why Vaginagate is so interesting to me: As I see it, it's a story about how our political polarization is impeding our capacity to engage thoughtfully and seriously with stories different from our own. The question is what to do about it.

Maybe part of the answer is that all of us need to think twice before we cleverly invoke, with a few sharp words, a narrative that our political opponents don't share. Maybe we shouldn't follow Sen. Brown's example. But that doesn't mean we should censure those who do.

No comments:

Post a Comment