[Marxism] Solnit: "Not because I could not speak but because they would not listen"
jhwilliams1920 at gmail.com
Tue Feb 25 06:46:46 MST 2020
NY Times, February 25, 2020
The Harvey Weinstein Verdict Is a Watershed — and a Warning
There are people willing to listen to women now, and sometimes what we say
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.
The story of Mr. Weinstein and his army of aggressive protectors has, since
it first began to be told two and a half years ago, been exemplary of this.
More than 90 women have reported he harassed or assaulted them, but Mr.
Weinstein had what money can buy: an international army of lawyers, spies,
influencers and others toiling to control the story and keep his secrets.
That is, to silence and discredit the women he assaulted. Which means that
so many of them were subjected to a double silencing.
The first time was when they were sexually assaulted — an act that is about
disregard for someone’s right to determine what does and does not happen to
them, to have a voice in what happens. (“If he heard the word ‘no,’ it was
like a trigger for him,” said one of the women who testified that he raped
her.) The second silencing was when they were intimidated out of speaking
up or paid to be silent or threatened with or actually had their
reputations or their careers ruined or some combination of those things.
Mr. Weinstein’s trial was widely covered, so we finally heard some of the
victims — but this is not just about exceptionally powerful men and young
women in an industry that makes headlines. There are countless stories of
silencing elsewhere every day, only a few of which make the news — for
example, that of Tiffany Marie Lazon of Albany, whose husband was charged
with her murder after her DNA was found on a circular saw. Four years
before, she’d told a judge her husband was trying to murder her and the
judge told her she was not a credible witness.
Most of these stories don’t make the news at all. Other times the news is
saturated with them — the other day, Mr. Trump, Julian Assange, Mr.
Weinstein, the Jeffrey Epstein-backer and Victoria’s Secret owner Leslie
Wexner and Michael Bloomberg — he of the multiple nondisclosure agreements
— were all on the front page of a leading newspaper, along with a German
mass shooter who’d also murdered his mother. Nothing indicated that most of
these figures and some of these stories were all about the same thing:
gender violence and gendered silence.
President Trump bought Stormy Daniels’s silence just before the 2016
election; she received some money in return for becoming a person who would
never have words, never tell her story (and then, as many women have done
since 2017, she finally did.) The president has asked for a delay in E.
Jean Carroll’s lawsuit against him for defamation — because he called her a
liar when she said he raped her — so he can deal with another lawsuit from
another woman he called a liar when she said he groped her.
There’s an illuminating overlap to be found in the fact that Alan
Dershowitz was friends with and provided legal services for both Jeffrey
Epstein and Mr. Trump — the former for sexual abuse, the latter in his
impeachment trial. The historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote of that
trial, “but for Trump and his enablers, this trial is not about the truth;
it never has been. It is about dominance and power. Forcing someone to
accept what they know to be untrue reinforces the dominance of the person
telling the lies.”
To be powerless means that your facts and truths can be overwhelmed by the
powerful, who prefer these facts or voices or stories not be heard. And
what it means in the end is that truth and fact and evidence only prevail,
whether it’s science or personal stories, in a democracy — not just a
democracy in the electoral sense but a world in which power differentials
don’t corrupt what stories get told. Where what facts prevail depends on
the strength of those facts, not the status of the speaker.
Imagine if Mr. Weinstein had committed his first sexual assault in a world
in which his victim had the audibility, credibility, value and resources he
did. There would likely not have been a second, or six women testifying in
a trial, or 90 women with stories no one made space for before something
changed in 2017. More likely there would not have been a first in a world
where he knew he could not overpower her facts and voice, even if he could
overpower her physically. When I hear these stories, I think of my own
youth as a person who was voiceless, not because I could not speak, but
because they would not listen. I, like so many others, then and now.
For myself, I wanted Mr. Weinstein found guilty and imprisoned not as
revenge — though he richly deserves it — but as a warning to men like him
that the age of impunity is over, that there are people willing to listen
to women, and sometimes what we say has consequences. The most important
change will be found in what we cannot measure — all the crimes that don’t
happen because would-be perpetrators fear the consequences, now that there
are consequences. All the potential victims who know that if they speak up,
someone might hear them and heed them. I want more than that, though: I
want a society where the desire and entitlement to commit sexual violence
wither away, not out of fear but out of respect for the rights and humanity
But even the idea that Mr. Weinstein’s conviction is a watershed is
optimistic: from offices to agricultural fields to college campuses, sexual
violence is still harming millions directly and making survival extra work
that too many women must do daily. We have democratized storytelling and
truth to the extent that we now sometimes hear about the consequences of
inequality, but not enough to end those stories. We — well, some of us —
have begun a process that matters more than anything. What just happened to
Weinstein was, maybe, a step forward, but we have miles to go.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of the forthcoming book “Recollections of My
Nonexistence,” a memoir about her youthful encounters with silence and
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