Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Hate Crimes, Complicated: Or, Why It's So Hard To Do What's Right, Even When You're "Right"

I've never been in a fist-fight in my entire life  but, yesterday, I received my first black eye.

I got my black eye roughly 48 hours ago now, on what just so happened to be the last day of my College's Fall break, which ended Tuesday evening.  I spent the entire evening on Tuesday with a frozen bag of peas on my face-- a strategy that I learned, not from any prior experience with fists to my face, but only from some vague memory of black-eye remedies a la 80's sitcom TV-- and I felt very fortunate to see the evidence of injury go down to the point where the splitting headache and blinding swelling weren't, well, so noticeable by the time I woke up the next day.  This morning (Wednesday morning), when I had to return to work/classes, here's how I explained my obviously weird-looking face to my students and colleagues:  "I was reaching up to get something off of one of the top shelves in my pantry and-- because I'm short and clumsy-- I accidentally dislodged a can of beans in the process, which fell and hit me in the face."  For what it's worth, I am short, but not particularly clumsy, just for the record.

That story was a lie.  I knew it was a lie when I told it.  It was a lie almost as transparent as "I fell and hurt myself," which may be the most transparently dubious lie ever told by women to explain their black eyes.  But it was a lie that nobody-- not ONE SINGLE PERSON-- questioned when I told it.  I think that's at least in part due to the fact that I'm not what one would call a "passive" female, but I hope you will see, shortly, how that does not matter at all.

Some background is necessary in advance to fully appreciate this post:  my job-- what I've spent the last decade doing-- is to teach political and moral philosophy, including feminist, queer, race and gender theory.  That is to say, I have absolutely no excuse for what follows.

Contrary to the story I told, here's the true story of what happened:  I was in a gas station in North Memphis on Tuesday, where three older males (I'm guessing in their 20's) were harassing a kid (I'm guessing 14 or 15yrs old), calling him a "faggot" and saying that they would "beat his fairy ass down" if they ever caught him somewhere that there weren't cameras. All four of them were ahead of me, as I was last in the checkout line. I told the older guys to STFU and leave the kid alone, that they were just showing how ignorant and scared they were by picking on someone who they obviously outnumbered and were bigger than. Many words-- many of which can only generously be described as "unkind" words and probably more accurately described as "fighting" words-- were exchanged between us, ending up with one of the older guys saying: "Of course you'd say that, DYKE." (Fwiw, I don't care at all about being called a "dyke.") So, I waited until all of us checked out, the kid was kind of hanging out by the door, so I walked the kid to his bike, and I waited to watch him ride off. All the while we were in the parking lot, the older guys were threatening the kid and giving him sh*t as he rode off, so I shouted back at them that they were a bunch of "p*ssy bullies" who "couldn't possibly be as hard as they claimed since they were so afraid of a kid on a bike." (Full disclosure: I used more expletives  And, if I'm being completely honest, I consciously and intentionally tried to "bait" them in order to distract their attention from the kid.) When the kid was safely out of sight, the older guys cornered me up against my car and started in again with the "you must be a dyke" stuff, to which (in retrospect, stupidly) I said "so what if I am? does that scare you, babies?." Then the one guy delivered what can only very generically be described as a "punch"-- it was, strictly technically speaking, more like a "misdirected shove"-- but at any rate, I got hit in the face. Hence, my black eye. It was over after that.  I got in my car and left, as did they.

I want to say now that I feel really terrible about not telling this story initially and I apologize to everyone who I told the "oh I was clumsy and dropped something off the top shelf" explanation. I especially apologize to all the LGBT people I know for telling that story. Of all people, as someone who regularly teaches feminist and queer theory, I really should've known better. In my defense, and this is not even a legitimate defense by my own standards, I felt guilty for what I thought was "instigating violence" language/behavior on my part. Even now, looking back on it, I am convinced that my intention in the parking lot was to "bait" them, to redirect their aggression toward me and away from the kid, which is only excusable in a very reductive ends-justifies-means way.  In retrospect, I still wish I had not contributed to the escalation of this situation, which I could have (and probably should have) easily walked away from when danger was no longer really imminent, but I now realize that the very deep embarrassment I feel about my behavior in this whole situation is misdirected.  And, even more so, my willingness to lie about it the next day was wrong.  Deeply, morally wrong.

I'm going to have a hurt and (slightly more) ugly face for a couple of days. Whatever. Nbd, in the grand scheme of things, really.

In my own estimation as a philosopher and a moral agent, I should've used better judgment/language in this case.  I should've done my part to reduce the possibility for violence, rather than provoking the likelihood of it, and I think I clearly did the latter.  I want to take full responsibility for my part in this   But, more importantly, I want to apologize for lying about this story, for letting my pride get in the way of telling the true story that should have been told. I did a real disservice to LGBT people everywhere with my lie, and there is no excuse for that.  These situations happen every day, and people get hurt in situations like these every day, sans any justifiable fault.  That I did (a number of) things in this particular situation for which I am blameworthy does not diminish the fact that the situation itself only arose as a consequence of the deeply blameworthy, and deeply embedded, social structure of homophobia.  I should have known better and immediately recognized this situation as an instance of such, 

Why did I lie about my black eye? It's so hard to explain that, even to myself, even now, even with a PhD in Philosophy.  I'm no stranger to moral dilemmas, to be sure, but I've never encountered one like this.  I found myself embarrassed by right action, I felt (at least partially) responsible for wrong action, I did not want to be seen as weak, and so many other insufficient, inadequate, and fundamentally unprincipled reasons to defer good judgment. But more than anything else, I lied because I wanted to be able to give an account of my actions as a rational and independent moral agent, which I felt I could not do if I appealed to a set of conditions that did not obtain to all rational, moral agents.  These are the ties that bind, after all, and also which BIND.

Most importantly, they bind sufficiently-informed moral judgement in cases like the one I *should* have made when I chose to tell (or, in my case, not tell) the true story. 

Apologies always, by definition, come too late to mend the things they regret.  I register this apology  as a promise to do better next time.  And, believe me, my "physical" black eye will remind me every day that I have it that I have to reckon, beyond it, with my moral black eye in this case.


c.c. said...

initial thought: your students may not have questioned you because, well, they're your students. the professor-student relationship often carries an implicit power dynamic that often goes unquestioned. and also, undergrads can sometimes be hella complacent without even realizing (must be those pre-outfitted dorm rooms and meal plans; lulls them into a false sense of security).

developed thought: everyone "should" or "could" use better refined language or more nuanced judgment in nearly any given situation - but we don't. because we're human. because we have these unpredictable enzymes in our bodies called adrenaline and hormones that can seriously screw with how we believe ourselves capable to think and act. you can read and critique and teach every damn philosopher in every field of philosophy, but it still won't change your bodily chemistry. you fucked up; you've conceded to that. next time, you should do better; you've admitted to that. hold on to that lesson, and move forward. if you truly want this apology to count for something, then go forth and *be better*.

and hey, if nothing else: if you're gonna screw up, it doesn't hurt that you kept a kid from having his ass whooped in the process.

Anonymous said...

No doubt your standing up for that kid was the correct thing to do and you learned a lesson in truthfulness but now, why not go to the police and file charges after the bullies attacked you? I expect the gas station has a video camera and there is a possibility they could be identified. They need to be held accountable for their physical assault on you. That would be their lesson!

Kate Lareau said...

None of us have a plan ready for encountering hate at the gas station. What you got right in that situation helped that child. What you got wrong hurt you (which I hate), but I call it a win overall. You were brave. They were mean and there were more of them. You were brave.

HM said...

First of all, I love you. You did a hard thing, maybe not perfectly (though the fact that you were baiting them in order to get them away from the kid seems not only justified but right), but you did it, and without invoking a sovereign authority.

I'm not sure you're giving yourself enough credit, though. I've wondered about this kind of thing for a long time: in a situation where someone's behavior is based on hate and ugliness, is it possible that we lose an opportunity if we DON'T reflect some of that back to them? It seems like you're saying you ought not to have been so angry or hurtful with your words because it 'escalated' the situation. I'm not sure your behavior was wrong because it had that effect. Sure, words are tools for rational communication, but more often than not they are also means of expression and sometimes of resistance. I worry that being reasonable with unreasonable people may simply be a way of giving in to their ideology without making them aware that it harms others. Sure, it's possible to talk 'about' harm and inform others of what they are doing to us, but it's another thing altogether to be a sensitive body that expresses (in a variety of ways) that harm is being done. Maybe in the long run this isn't worth it; after all, yelling, swearing, smart-assing, doesn't 'teach', and may not do any long term good. But, is it possible it's a kind of mirror? The risk, of course, is reproducing reactive behaviors rather than cultivating reflective ones. But I'm also not sure that the means always need to look like their end.