When I was young I had no words. I read voraciously, I loved books, stories, language. I was trying to become a writer, and so I lived for words and by words. I poured out my thoughts and some of the hopes and fears that were beginning to take shape in long conversations with friends. But words failed me when I needed them most.
I was a young woman in the 1980s, long before all the contemporary conversations about consent and believing victims began, before terms like acquaintance rape and workplace sexual harassment were in regular circulation. I lived in a time when it seemed so unlikely that the men who menaced me on the street and sometimes elsewhere would respect my words if I said no, leave me alone, I’m not interested that I despaired beforehand and tried instead to slip away, evade, dodge, shrink, disappear.
I was mute in those moments. I knew that speaking was more likely to make things worse than better for me, though women in the situations I found myself in were often rebuked for not speaking up. The pleasant story behind that rebuke was that we were all equal rational beings, and we all had the power of language at our command, and anyone who didn’t use it chose not to, and it was all on her.
That was a lie. We did not have equal power. Sometimes saying no or stop achieved nothing. Sometimes speaking up further enraged the man we were trying to escape. Some of us, many of us, millions of us were sexually assaulted and then told we were liars when we spoke of what happened, and so our society was able to pretend it cared about sexual harassment and assault while refusing to acknowledge their omnipresence.
We do things with words, when they have power — set boundaries, swear oaths, bear witness. But if your words have no power, it is almost worse to speak them than not, to see them fail than not.
Facts circulate freely in a democracy of information that results from a democracy of voices. We have something else instead, from personal life to national politics: a hierarchy of audibility and credibility, a brutal hierarchy, in which people with facts often cannot prevail, because those who have more power push those facts out of the room and into silence or make the cost of stating those facts dangerously high. That’s how the oil industry turned the science of climate change into a fake debate full of fake uncertainties. It’s how the impeachment trial turned into a showcase for how to override facts and laws.
And it’s how Harvey Weinstein raised an army to protect his power to grab and grope and rape with impunity, until now. Sexual assault is perhaps the grimmest and clearest example of how unequal power generates crimes and then protects those who create them, but it’s not the only one. [Continue reading…]