24 Sep In Defense of Vengeance
That’s an odd, uncomfortable title for any writing of mine. I thought I thought vengeance a waste of energy. Then a recent barrage of news stories set me off. Nothing unique about any of them, given the pattern we’re used to under patriarchy. But the barrage, across a range of contexts, kept drumming the same insult home.
There’s Trump’s boy, Brett Kavanaugh, confirmed to the Supreme Court for life by the narrowest of margins, after having been credibly, publicly, convincingly accused of sexual assault, and responding with an indignant tantrum before the Senate committee. Now the story breaks that additional credible witnesses contacted the FBI to testify in agreement with Dr. Blasey Ford, the survivor of his assault—but the FBI refused even to interview them. Did the FBI, pressured by the White House and GOP-dominated Senate, just cave in? Was the FBI worn out by right-wing accusations against its own credibility? Whatever the reason, there’s a name for such consistent, de facto, sexist complicity: systemic.
Are we doomed to repeat a past we never examined sufficiently? This echoes Joe Biden’s real sin, when he chaired the 1991 Senate committee that confirmed Clarence Thomas for his lifetime seat on the court. It wasn’t only that Biden permitted appalling verbal abuse of Dr. Anita Hill during the hearings; he refused to admit testimony corroborating her: two credible women witnesses brought by the committee to Washington, who were kept offstage. Only after announcing his candidacy for president now, 28 years later, did Biden finally phone Dr. Hill with a non-apology apology but still no mention of the other, silenced witnesses. When asked by press if she accepted his apology, she noted the tactical timing, cynicism, and shallowness of the apology, and politely said no. This woman not only came forward decades ago; she’s stayed forward.
In a seemingly unrelated story, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a public appeal for forgiveness after the press discovered photos of him wearing brown-face make up in 2006. In his most winning manner, Trudeau also claimed that consciousness “way back then” was just not what it is today. Excuse me? Such an intelligent, progressive man didn’t see that brown-face make up was, to say the least, offensive? As late as 2006?
In Japan, the high court finally ruled in a major case against three executives of the company operating the nuclear facility responsible for the 2011 Fukushima catastrophe. The court found all three not culpable. Apparently the meltdown—which left surrounding land and waters radioactively poisoned for hundreds of miles around and incalculable years to come—happened all by itself, not from any mismanagement.
This problem is grave. It’s also trivial. But trivia, too, can destroy.
Comedian Louis CK is well into his career resurrection, doing stand-up sets at comedy clubs, but unannounced beforehand. He traps audiences by shock, the way he forced unwitting women to witness his genital exposures and masturbation. The message: You can’t stop me, I do what I want. I copped to sexual misconduct, asked for forgiveness, lay low for a few months, and now mean to pick up where I left off. Chucky’s back! So is Charlie Rose. Matt Lauer. Bill O’Reilly. And this is in the middle of the MeToo era! Must we grind the blade-edge of our outrage each second of every day or else trend our way into amnesia? How sharp must we hone our wrath to keep it from being a passing fad?
A man shrugs, rolls his eyes, mutters Oooops, my bad! and is forgiven. Women, on the other hand, are blamed and worse, conditioned to blame ourselves, lifelong—for acts that may be worthy of apology and even for those in which we’re victims: Why did I have that second glass of wine? Why did I say he could stop by my dorm room to borrow a book? My fault. Why did I contradict my husband when I knew he was drunk and has a temper? My fault. Why did I think a miniskirt was just fashion and not provocation? Why did I stay after work though the boss insisted? My fault. My fault. My fault.
Do you think Brett Cavanaugh ever asks himself Why do I drink too much or Why did I act so atrociously during college (and maybe afterwards)? Do you think Louis CK spent a critical amount of time in deep psychological exploration before he declared himself cured? Do you think that thousands of women marching with signs reading NO MEANS NO and WHAT PART OF NO DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND made Harvey Weinstein or Roger Ailes or Les Moonves think twice or even once about what they’ve done and why? (Not think about what they’ve lost or paid for having got caught, but about what they did?) Why should they? Assaults must be exceedingly violent, repeated, frequent, and with such high victim numbers—Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, Jeffrey Epstein—to qualify for being socially unforgiveable. Even then, how long it took, while everyone knew but nobody spoke! The “lesser” guys? Hey, it was ages ago he was young just locker room talk everyone did it boys will be boys. Whoever says “girls will be girls”?
There are actions perpetrators could take that would make a difference, over time. But not one has shown signs of doing that kind of work. And no, gentlemen, we’re not going to tell you what that work is and how to do it. It’s for you to figure out: that is the work. Some men have figured it out and more are now making the attempt. Meanwhile, yes, you should still be deprived of your job, career, reputation, and in some cases freedom. Try evolving.
And we women? Modern women are new at vengeance. If the word, rooted in the Latin Vindicare [to vindicate], bothers you (glance back at the first paragraph) try one of its synonyms: retribution, recompense, requital, justice. Whatever we call it, we need to practice not saying “I’m sorry” about . . . well, about everything, including what we never had the power to affect in the first place. We need to practice not saying “It’s okay, I forgive you” until we truly mean it because it’s been deeply earned.
Until then, gentlemen, we do not accept your apologies. We find the ease with which you forgive each other ominous. Some of you even wonder aloud when women will have had enough.
This is in defense of our having just begun. This is in defense of women’s growing refusal to accept responsibility for violence done to us and then compounded with denial-reversals always used by the powerful: citizens of color trying to vote told they’re asking to be lynched. Brutalized kids in bible-belt families beaten and told they’d been begging for it. Dead women blamed for trusting the offer of a lift home.
This is in defense of women freeing in ourselves the Erynnies, the Harpies, the ancient archetypal Furies relentless in pursuit of violators who then violate forgiveness itself.
This is in defense of vengeance. Yes.