Aug 17, 2009

Boo-hoo for the world, Big Bad Hillary is being mean to it

OMG, y'all, Hillary is so mean! Cause when somebody is asking you what your hubby thinks about your job, you answer, biyatch! What's this getting uppity and sniping back about? She's like, got no empathy, y'all!

See, travelling half way across the world into a war zone to urge the humane treatment of half the population of the world - the half that, in this particular beauty spot, is having their very bodies forcibly penetrated not only by assorted and often ganged up penises, but gun muzzles, razor blades, broken bottles and the AIDS virus - is totally not empatheitc. No, taking time out of your busy State Secretarial schedule to answer rude, fuckwitted questions is empathetic. Bake some cookies already!

Judith Warner at the NYT has a great article up, attacking the trivialisation of Secretary of State Clinton in the US media, and I find echoes of it relevant to the UK; because US issues become British issues so quickly, of course, but also because we've just had our own round of abject trivialisation - of Harriet Harman and her more limited but nevertheless excellent initiative to combat violence against women and girls.

A lot of the commentary I've seen on both topics in the last few weeks tended to focus on the journalistic inanity of this tone of coverage, as well as the potential political implications (e.g. long term undermining of Secretary Clinton could lead to a wider destabilisation both of her mission and of the Obama administration). But that, to me, dismisses the ridicule, obfuscation, misrepresentation and trivialisation of high ranking female political figures as an Aw Shucks side effect of the boys' club that is journalism, and its lazy attitude towards playing into the public's basest prejudices. And to do that is to miss the point.

It's significant that Harriet's fuckability and Hillary's love handles made their respective appearances around the time when both of them were publicizing significant initiatives to improve the lot of women and protect them from violence, cruelty, torture and rape. I was actually surprised when the Mail - a publication that I thought had long lost the power to ever lower itself further in my eyes - didn't ridicule Harman's intiative. It actually got angry about it. It really, really scared and outraged the Mail that government is trying to interfere in the God-given right of upstanding citizens to teach their children on the one hand to beat, and the other to take beatings. Educating children to eschew violence was framed as being fundamentally, invasively evil.

It's the same kind of non-logic that underpins the widespread outrage in the US at the suggestion that people could be given access to better healthcare. Preventing the suffering of others is being read as an unforgivable intrusion into basic democratic liberties. The operative word in this, as in all discussions about welfare reform and the protection of vulnerable groups, is other.

There's a bunch of feminist discourse dealing with "Othering", and a lot of it can be a bit obscure and intimidating to the newcomer. But to put it very plainly, albeit in my own somewhat unqualified words, Othering a person, or a group of people, is the mental process of redrawing your emotional boundaries such that empathy no longer extends to them. If you can place yourself in the shoes of an 8 year old child who has been gang raped and mutilated, or in the shoes of a person dying of cancer because their insurance company won't pay for chemo, and at least somewhat enter into their state of pain, fear, confusion and despair, there's just no way that you won't want to do something to help. At the barest minimum you will not stand in the path of others who wish to help, especially if the help comes at no cost to you.

But doing this is painful; empathy entails at least a tiny psychic wound inflicted by the imagined anguish of the empathees. So to some, the emotionally cogent solution is to imagine that those people - the mass raped, the uninsured, the victims and addicts and punch bags of soceity - don't exist, or can't possibly exist, or possibly do exist but deserve their self-inflicted suffering, or, in the most extreme cases, are simply so alien and un-human as to bear no meaningful relationship to one, possess no hook onto which one can start fastening one's empathy. Women, to go back to the feminist theory bit of this post, are the quintessential "other", which is why when we talk of mass rape in Liberia or family killings in Pakistan we don't talk about human rights - we talk about "women's issues". So insiduous is the othering of women that we quite casually dismiss them from membership of the human race on a daily basis.

There's a trick to this emotional equivalent of placing one's hands over one's ears and shouting "lalala nobody's listening!", and trivilisation by the media is central to it. Concentrating on Secretary Clinton's wardrobe or Mrs Harman's accent starts a feedback loop that, properly nurtured, provides whole swathes of people with the near-mystical ability to believe that the most heinous, the most dehumanising, the most abhorrent and disgusting and appaling outrages against one's fellow human beings aren't really anything to lose much sleep over. Because if Harriet Harman is frivolous, then all of her prattling about spousal abuse and the rape conviction rates is frivolous, too. If Hillary Clinton is frivolous, then little girls in Africa having their insides torn up by bayonettes, being "circumcised" by marauding soldiers before being deemed clean enough to rape, are frivolous too. And shame on these women politicians for wasting our time with them!

That, friends, is real lack of empathy. A couple of tetchy sentences in response to a silly question at a press conference really don't allow Secretary Clinton to aspire to such high achievements.

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