Politics, Power, Gender... and Compassion
Marisa Guerin, Ph.D. – September 29, 2018
I have found it hard to write these days. In the past, when I felt writer’s block, I would try to write about the stuckness. So I did that, and this blogpost is what has fitfully emerged. It reminded me that writing itself is an act of initiative and personal agency, an antidote to powerlessness and discouragement. These reflections feel incomplete, and I propose no nifty solutions, but that's how it is sometimes, isn't it?
I started with my awareness that my spirit has been feeling weighed down lately with the negativity and anxiety in my country, which I follow pretty closely in the press. My other reading projects don’t alleviate this intensity – when I’m not checking the news, I’m immersed in books about the history of the US civil rights movement and the present contours of racism in our country. Consequently, I’m finding myself unusually attuned to the dynamics of injustice, inequity, and hatred these days, dark currents that constantly threaten to swamp espoused values like fairness, respect and the common good. I’m feeling a bit desolate, since it’s hard to find ethical leaders to rally behind. Even the Church, which at least sometimes took a stand for justice in the days of civil rights, is horribly crippled these days when it comes to any claim on moral leadership.
Into this mix comes the recent national scenario involving accusations of sexual assault related to the Supreme Court nomination. What surprises me is how personally upsetting I am finding this unfolding drama. I think that like many, many other women, I find myself stressed and agitated because the news reports have re-activated memories I’d prefer to forget. (Now I know what “triggering” feels like.)
How many women (or men) have had to fend off -- or worse, succumb to -- the sexually abusive higher-up at work or in a professional society, someone with power to make or break your reputation? How many have been ambushed by the coercive bully on a date? Forced themselves to ignore offensive words or flashers on the random city street, train station, or running trail?
I have personally experienced all of these abuses; and they mostly happened when I was a young woman, and in a society that hadn’t begun to name realities like “grooming” or “date rape” or “hostile environment.” And no, nothing got reported; who knew that some of these things were crimes? Somehow, it vaguely seemed like my fault, a source of shame as much as revulsion. In my case, I am not aware of lingering trauma -- just disgust and anger when my older-woman-self remembers what the younger-woman-self was faced with. But I can’t deny that the public spectacle of the judicial nomination has stirred a visceral unease, irritability, and anxiety in me. I can’t be the only one, I know this. (Link to interesting column in Washington Post about why women of my age especially might be coming forward now.)
This deeply personal element is what is mobilizing women and the trusted men to whom they have confided in unprecedented ways. It is not politics as usual. If statistics are right, a full one-third of all women will have the experience of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetimes, and that’s in the relatively gender-enlightened USA – let’s not even think about the countries where women are one click up from chattel.
My hunch is that this opening up of private stories of abuse is critical, if the culture of violence against women and vulnerable people is to be successfully challenged and changed. I’m aware how earth-shaking this will be. Everything has to get re-thought, re-assessed. It’s going to terrify many powerful guys who may have the dawning realization that some taken-for-granted aspects of their shared male culture turn out to be abusive, immoral or criminal behaviors that will no longer be tolerated. Hubris only makes it worse. Few might be the past-Presidents who could meet the emerging standards for honorable male behavior, few the powerful businessmen, few the famous celebrities.
The old norms are no longer holding. But I’m also quite sure that simplistic new rules will not cut it either in the face of the excruciating complexity of sexuality, intimacy, power, and passion. I think there is no way to navigate this without damage of some kind to men and to women and to their families, some of it really tragic. This is no simple dilemma. Mistakes will be made and deliberate harm will happen, too.
I don’t know how all of this is going to unfold, but I do hope I and others can remember to care for one another. Rage may be unavoidable and even cathartic, and a good dose of anger might be as good a motivation for voting as anything else. But compassion will be needed if healing is ever to happen -- compassion for one’s own wounded self, and for the wounded others, especially for the ones we see as “enemy”, and for the invisible and excluded and powerless ones.
I call myself to remember compassion because it’s hard, hard, hard to avoid my propensity to demonize the Other…for me, that Other could be the President, the Congress, the other party, the people who don’t think the way I do, the bishops, arrogant men, etc. Resisting this tendency to hurl judgment upon others is a huge challenge for me … and yet, I don’t believe in passivity or moral neutrality, either. I want to be able to clearly perceive injustice and corruption and I want to be able to join others in taking action to bring about change, but without replicating in my own heart the contempt that fuels the problem in the first place. What does the balance point look like?
The image that comes to my mind is what happens when I go into the edge of the ocean on an early morning walk, and try to stand in the same spot for a while. When the ripples of seawater released by a wave pour over my feet and reach their farthest point on the beach, they gradually stop and then reverse course -- rushing back into the sea with astonishing power, pulling the sand out from under me. It is incredibly hard to keep my place. I must periodically adjust my feet, or I would fall. If there were another person with me, holding hands would help a lot. The only solution is a paradox of stability and motion – you keep your place by re-positioning yourself continuously, and keeping your eyes on the big picture. It’s a dance of sorts, with a supremely powerful force.
I am glad there are those who will hold my hands as I try to keep my balance.
In another post someday, I may write about the most creative and inspiring account of nonviolent conflict resolution that I have come across in recent years -- found in the book "However Long the Night", by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, about their experience of the Vatican mandate some years ago. It stands alone as a counter-cultural story of integrity and compassion under pressure. Much to learn!