My Favourite Utopia
After yet another week of revelations reaffirming the exhausting injustices of life under patriarchy — with 70,000 women shrieking inside my phone — I sank into another bath. I was listening to My Favorite Murder, waiting for Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark’s comforting tones to transport me from the grotesque world of men using their positions of power to abuse countless women (and the ensuing chorus of victim-blaming) to the relative calm of American true crime stories. Running headlong into tales of gruesome murder — where the victims are mostly women and the perpetrators mostly men — might seem paradoxical, but it provides a necessary, albeit momentary, escape. There is something liberating about these tales when recited by two female comedians, often on stages in front of thousands of other women, all brought together in a cathartic exorcism of fear and anxiety. It wouldn’t work for everyone, but it certainly works for me.
Having said that, following the news cycles’ unremitting misery, I’ve started to imagine a utopia where women don’t have to constantly engage in dialogue about their experience of oppression. It’s a world where women meeting for the first time bond over their favourite books rather than their respective brushes with sexual assault; where the media gives just as much space to women’s lives — except in celebration of the many different ways there are to thrive as a woman today, not in the context of varying degrees of victimhood. It’s a world where everyone understands the sexiness of active consent and sex is hot and exciting and about mutual pleasure, not used as a weapon or tool for control.
In an essay on imaginative reading, American author Ursula K. Le Guin writes, ‘We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.’ Picturing this utopia where women can live and speak and be visible in safety and peace, without fear of silencing or violence in reprisal, where we are not frequently constrained to taking up public space only when speaking out against — as ‘alleged victims’ — or complying with — when ‘flaunting our curves’ — the vagaries of patriarchy is sometimes a tall order. And this vision is clearly a long way off. But it’s not an impossible dream and imagining it and wishing for it and treasuring it as an ideal is one of the ways I navigate the grim reality.
I have also been binge watching Mindhunter and reruns of The X-Files, daydreaming about insubordinate FBI agents with a crusade in their heart and a hero complex (dreamy), because it turns out that, much like My Favourite Murder, programmes exploring persecution at its most horrifying extremes give me solace, even if it’s un-becoming to wade waist deep into the poisonous bog. Still, every utopia must have its dystopian counterpart. And surely the worst possible place is the purgatory of denial? The dramas of Agents Ford and Tench, Mulder and Scully foreground the issue; in their worlds this bleak situation is not denied. Structural violence is laid out in all its brutality and although my interest is undeniably morbid, I find empowerment in the solidity of these things. In these semi-fictional worlds, I see my own experience blown up so big as to explode my frame of reference; I witness people dedicated to the search for truth. (And these people are also a bit sexy, which helps.)
But this is a personal coping strategy, not one I would ever force on anyone else, for responses to trauma, whether singular or collective, never will, or should, be the same. What lands one person with indelible suffering can leave another relatively unscathed; sometimes an individual’s answer will be silence, sometimes noise. If we can redirect discussion of how survivors process their experiences we will all benefit; it can’t be about divisions of brave and meek or strong and weak, but must be reframed as a question of personal choice. Acts of sexual assault and intimidation serve to depersonalise and objectify. And, regardless of the perpetrator’s identity, these acts of violation when recounted in the press tend to be painfully monotonous in their aim to dehumanise their victim, so surely re-empowerment must entail regaining the right to choose as an act of authentic autonomy? The choice between silence and testimony, where it is a choice, can be an equal one.
If we can accept that there is no ‘right’ way to process trauma, can the conversations we then have about it be supportive and not antagonistic? Seeing as we have to counter victim-blaming on a global scale, can we agree not to stratify victimhood ourselves? Can we accept unilaterally that our experience exists on an intersectional scale? The mainstream discourse being focused on white, cis-heterosexual women is problematic, because the erasure and added vulnerability of those that don’t fit these categories is, and has always been, a propagation of the violence against them. To acknowledge the experience of others more at risk, and the limits of our own comprehension as dictated by intersectional privilege is vital. Humility is also key — an understanding that whatever the worst we have personally lived through might be, there are women out there who have suffered — are still suffering — far worse fates.
Lately, what for some has been the disturbing public amplification and reliving of already omnipresent trauma has for others provided a much-needed experience of solidarity — an antidote to an inherent sense of powerlessness. To be marginalised is to live with injustice. And so those of us that do not benefit from the rigged system that privileges men navigate varying degrees of distress daily. Some dedicate their lives to changing one particular element of the system, others have worked to accept reality and then minimise its pitfalls as a coping mechanism, most oscillate between these poles. It’s a delicate situation, because while for many this outpouring has been a wrenching interruption of carefully managed survival strategies, there are plenty more for whom that silence was corrosive.
When faced with the inescapable reality of deeply embedded structural oppression, however, by criticising one another for our choices — whether to publically declare #metoo or not, whether to privately admit ‘me too’ or not — we continue the work of patriarchy. So, can we unilaterally refuse to participate by creating the safe space of friendship across intersectional and international boundaries? Can we use the fourth dimension created by social media and the Internet to build a place where we can process together — as survivors and allies — what actually happens, incorporating all strategies critical to communal healing?
Ultimately, it’s a question of respect. Can we create a culture that offers enough respect to survivors so that it does not immediately judge them for, for example, the time frame within which their experience has come to light? It can take time to know how one feels about something, particularly where trauma of any kind is involved. This is the problem with rigidity in this discussion — we can be rigid about the baseline of what is acceptable behaviour in any given situation, be it professional, romantic, platonic, familial, but when it comes to listening to the accounts of those who choose to speak out, we must proceed with gentleness and flexibility. Our humanity is fragile, we are complex beings; let’s commit to an attitude of compassion and an understanding that uncomfortable though it is, the grey area is mostly where we find ourselves.
Sympathy, pity or sadness for someone else’s misfortune, can happen at a smug distance. Empathy — the ability to not only understand but also share the feelings of another person — can’t be done remotely: you too have to get down in the mire. Like dwelling in the grey area, empathy is rarely comfortable. But this is why it can be a radical act; a progressive and motivating force for change. True allies empathise with one another across the gulfs between their lived experiences. And when women and their allies are able to come together in shared fortitude against oppression and create a culture where our voices are respected, heard and believed, we get a taste of what has been on offer to men since time immemorial — confidence, validation, power, security. Whatever our gender identity, it is through empathy that we can contribute to the seismic shift now trembling on the brink of its own potential. Yes, structural oppression seems insurmountable and hetero-patriarchal capitalist discourse remains as dominant and violating as ever, but optimism is not a luxury: it’s something we can nurture and cultivate. We all need hope. The same goes for truth. And in these times of reckoning, empathy is essential to divining our path through all this ugly, sticky muck.
In the last few weeks, a breaking point was reached, and a lid very publicly lifted to reveal the roiling mess that was for some a surprise. Many men have expressed shock at the prevalence of the micro- and macro-sexual violations most women tolerate on a daily basis. That anyone could have been oblivious for so long is the definition of their privilege and it must be up to them to deconstruct it: it is not the job of victims of assault to educate those complicit in their abuse. Men can help break these centuries of complicity by educating themselves, calling each other out and fully supporting the women who testify. It feels — tentatively — like the balance might be starting to tip. As more voices speak out, the closer we appear to get to a cultural safe space not tied to location but to perception, meaning we can all continue doing the work of dismantling patriarchy in whatever way we feel capable, which, on some days, may well be no work at all.
I’m grateful for the courage of women who have been sharing deeply personal experiences, but it does not follow that those who choose not to speak publicly lack it. I am grateful for voices like Rebecca Solnit, Audre Lorde, Mary Beard and Roxane Gay; for the sociologists, novelists, actors, poets, newsreaders, politicians and journalists who are using the access they have to public discourse to effect change as best they can. But this is not to say that all voices must speak, or that those who choose not to are doing something wrong — the cruel reality is that there are so many of us that we can afford silence to those who require it in order to heal. And to require it is not a sign of weakness, but simply a choice. Women tearing each other down has long been one of the covert tools of patriarchy. We can subvert this by making a commitment to support one another across intersectional boundaries — we need not be divided in the face of the giant beast that is inequality. We can be equally grateful to all the people who are making change in ways that are not so immediately visible: the people having disquieting conversations in their daily lives, correcting sexist comments, shouting down racist ‘jokes’, refusing to tolerate victimising ‘banter’.
These thoughts have been shaped by the hive mind of social media, things I’ve read on Twitter and Instagram, from a polyphony of diverse voices all coming to terms in real time with our own experiences, picking our way through the quagmire of our realities. One of the positive effects of speaking out is to give one another permission and to identify one another, so we feel less alone. It’s often only through conversation that we discover how we truly feel about things and the LED screen serves as an interlocutor, a conduit to a back-and-forth happening across temporal, geographical and sometimes even linguistic boundaries.
Reading, like true conversational exchange, is an act of empathy. Inspired by Le Guin’s thinking, I’ve reached the conclusion that the exercise of empathy is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that one’s singular experience is not the only one possible. Systems of oppression thrive on infighting and division, but empathy unites us — and as we’ve seen in these last few weeks, united, our voice rings out and united, we do not all actually need to speak in order to be heard. The system won’t change until we dissolve the corrupt power structures that facilitate abusive behaviour and this change in turn won’t begin until we are able to imagine a radically different status quo. Sometimes this vision will be realised through silence and sometimes noise, but the condition for real and lasting change will always be unity.
Octavia Bright is a freelance writer, and co-host of the outstanding NTS radio show, Literary Friction.
Photograph by My Favorite Murder