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Autonomy

In some sense, all of the history of religion and philosophy is a protracted exercise in victim-blaming. In literature, in poetry, in art and in science, we seek to answer what may very well be the fundamental question of the human condition: Why do bad things happen to good people? We seek explanation. For tragedy, for pain, for death, for confusion. We seek to make some sense of what seems otherwise to be senseless. And, in explaining and making sense, we think we can solve it. Prevent it from happening. Insulate ourselves. Shield us from harm.

Because of feminism, I have mostly given up that project. There isn’t a reason. There are reasons why people do terrible things, but there are no reasons why people have terrible things done to them. The entire enterprise is premised on notions I reject, such that there are such things as good people and bad people. I don’t believe in evil; I never have. People are mostly good, and they make mistakes. Some of those mistakes are more serious than others.

But I have yet to give up that project on my own life. Instead, I find myself wondering: Why am I the way I am? I can’t stop analyzing, searching, thinking, remembering, asking until I feel I have found an answer that seems sufficient. I came across this in a painful way several months ago when I was interviewing for a job I desperately wanted (and later got), when I prepared for the interview by first considering the first question one is asked in any public service job interview: “Why do you want to do this work?” For years, I had been giving answers that were pat, almost tautological: “Well, I’ve been interested in prisoners’ rights for several years now, and this is where I’ve focused the bulk of my career…” Okay, sure, but why? When I dug beneath the tautologies, I found something surprising there. Something I didn’t understand, and didn’t expect.

I don’t know.

The truth is, the thought of the government mistreating people who are locked up against their will, or holding people without cause, whether they’re alleged terrorists or common criminals or people with mental illness or mental retardation, fills me with a seething rage. I don’t know where that rage comes from. I’ve never been locked up, nor have any of the people I’m closest to. I don’t come from a community where incarceration and detention are the norm. But I feel moved to action by even the slightest injustice. I feel compelled to fight back against government authority, to hold it to the minimum exercise of governmental force allowed by the law, and no more — and, if the law itself is unjust, to fight against it. Sometimes, when I think about the compulsion I feel to do this work, it feels almost like something about me is not totally under my control.

Which is why I was taken aback and left in tears after reading Jessica Stern’s op-ed in the Washington Post a few days ago, where she reflects on her career as a counterterrorism expert:

I did not believe it. I knew about PTSD from working with soldiers, and I could not imagine that my own life experience would result in similar symptoms. I had long ago brushed the memory of my rape aside; I thought I had “moved on.” I wanted to contribute to society rather than remain stuck in the past, cringing in terror.
And yet, terror had become my central preoccupation. I felt compelled to understand the deeper motivations of those who hurt others. Instead of feeling terror, I studied it.

Ironically enough, reading an article about someone else’s fascination with terror caused me to feel a little terror of my own. What if this explained it all? What if my fascination with detention and corrections, and compulsion to fight for people who are locked up, was all a complicated outgrowth of my history of trauma? I was harassed almost every day as a teenager, groped, assaulted, and in my late teens and early twenties raped repeatedly by a boyfriend. I was surrounded by people who had done bad things to me. But instead of being repulsed by criminals, rapists, terrorists, I identify with them. Because, just like women are the sex class, to be the recipient, the dumping-ground for male aggression, men of color and especially mentally ill men of color are the dumping ground for white male authoritarian state-sanctioned violence.

I thought, maybe this is my healing. I can’t undo what was done to me. I can, however, stop the state from inflicting pain and injustice on people who are on the lowest rung of our bogus humanity-ladder, forgotten by everyone and championed by no one. Even those people, even them, they do not deserve wanton pain and suffering. Maybe by doing this, I establish my firmest principle: that there is no reason in tragedy, no blame appropriate to explain ill fate — that the entire enterprise of deciding how pain and suffering are meted out according to some invented and constantly-shifting scale of goodness, is wrong.

But no. Just, no. I am not a slave to trauma. I am grown. I have chosen this. Because sometimes there is no rhyme or reason for why people do the things they do, and giving even one of the people who hurt me the power to determine my life is too much already. I respect what Jessica Stern has to say about the healing that understanding her PTSD has brought her. But I can’t forget that feminism taught me that there isn’t always a reason. I don’t do this work because I am damaged and trying to avenge some other injustice. I do it because this is who I am: I identify with the underdog. I am motivated by challenge; the harder and more intractable a problem seems, the more I want to solve it. It may be comforting to think that there are reasons for the choices we make, but we also have to embrace that there is chaos.

I am not pre-determined. I have autonomy, and I chose this road. And I will choose to choose, and not be chosen.

12 Comments

  1. Gayle Force wrote:

    When you work in human rights or public interest, so many of the folks there are women, trying to make the world a better place.

    And you really get to the reason for that. Because, like you say, we choose it, the trauma does not dictate us. But woo, boy, do a lot of women know what it is like to be a victim, to be treated unfairly, to be a target. That empathy may drive more of us into public service.

    A beautiful post. Especially about an article that hit just SO close to home for me. I am going to go back to reading about national security and human rights now.

    Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  2. alanna wrote:

    Silvana! This post, combined with Sady’s, make a helluva one-two punch! And I mean that as a compliment, of course. Thank you for sharing this.

    Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 5:06 pm | Permalink
  3. orestes wrote:

    psychology changed my life. not for the better i sometimes think. sometimes i think the more you understand of this world, the less truisms you believe, the less you are prepared to hold individual people accountable and believe in the good guys or the bad guys then the worse for you.

    You are completely right in that there is no such thing as evil people. just evil acts. studying people’s actions-from hitler to the guards at abu ghraib, from street harrassers to government authoritarians and realising why they have done these things-the fact that there is no why-the fact that there is merely a limited amount of weighted options, the fact that people often follow the path of least resistance, that people are neither essentially good nor essentially evil-it fucking hurts. feminism taught me this. socialism taught me this. psychology taught me this. there are no bogeymen or bad guys. and the people fighting for human rights in international courts? the people performing citizen’s arrests on war criminals? the people who speak up about injustice? but for a different situation, they would be comitting the same atrocities themselves. the world has no angels and bogeyman. it has people. complicated, fucked up, damaged, cosseted, abused, privileged…the systems that glue is into our roles defines our behaviour. we are all just animals stumbling towards the destination that luck and past have provided.

    and that sometimes, maybe most of the time, makes me want to fucking cry my eyes out.

    i am a morass of fucked up thoughts and actions and virtuous thoughts and actions. a walking contradiction. we all are.

    Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 7:09 pm | Permalink
  4. Teaspoon wrote:

    Nice piece, Silvana. It’s a rather liberating thing when we find we’re able to tell the demons of our abusers, “No. You have no more power over me. I live my life neither because of nor in spite of you. I live it for me, and all that I love.” And mean it.

    Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 12:18 am | Permalink
  5. julie ruin wrote:

    after spending an entire day questioning my motives and entertaining doubts and fears concerning my decision to go back to school, this was reallllly comforting. thank you.

    Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 5:04 am | Permalink
  6. bxley wrote:

    you have no idea how much the paragraph of this line resonated with me, the revelation that trying to answer “why do bad things happen to good people?” usually results in the absolutely evil answer, “because they were not really good people.”
    I think, just as there is a victim-blaming element to it, there is also denialism there. like, when they frame someone’s death, for example, as ‘being called to something greater’. it’s a refusal to acknowledge a tragedy. Which is the least a human being deserves, to have your death, your loss, your injustice be a self-evident tragedy. one whose ensuing outrage requires no justification.

    Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 6:26 am | Permalink
  7. Abby wrote:

    Hey, I’m new to reading Tiger Beatdown.
    But I need to request something super important. The removal of the words “mental retardation”. The disability community has come together over the past few years and determined that the term “Intellectual Disability” be used if you must categorize and group them together.
    Rosa’s law is fighting the use of the r-word in federal lexicon in the US, replacing it with the people first language of “individual with an intellectual disability”.
    The r-word campaign is hoping for a similar change in day to day speech and asks that you pledge to stop using the r-word as slang or towards disability groups.
    Like I said, I am new to Tiger Beatdown and have only been reading for 3-4 days so I don’t know if you’ve ever considerd the r-word’s use as a diagnoses as harmful and ableist, but as a PWD and an individual with a very intelligent and capable sister with down syndrome, I’d hope you’d consider not using “mental retardation” to categorize those with intellectual disabilities, the implications are just too harmful.
    I respect that that is not the focus of this article, but its use within this article as a way of categorizing suggests it is an appropriate and correct term precisely because it is not the focus.

    Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 10:02 am | Permalink
  8. Kat wrote:

    Thanks for this post. The focus of my work is in jail and prison (with women, however, not men) and I’ve often questioned my own motivations. Thanks for sharing your own self-examination.

    Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 4:35 pm | Permalink
  9. Shir wrote:

    So much this. Thank you. The more I live and use my brain, body and emotions, the more I see that for me, feminism(s) is the hope that’s buried beneath the malice of the Pandora’s Box that the human kind can be. Even if I sometimes forget and too scared to hope.

    Friday, June 25, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink
  10. @ Abby:

    Like I said, I am new to Tiger Beatdown and have only been reading for 3-4 days so I don’t know if you’ve ever considerd the r-word’s use as a diagnoses as harmful and ableist…

    Sady had a look at the use of words like this in February – in fact a couple of times, plus with Amanda in a Sexist Beatdown, so those might be worth having a look at. Of course that was back when Tiger Beatdown was all Sady all the time; nowadays there are five regular contributors, which makes for a range of different views, and obviously I can’t speak for any of them! But I hope those links are helpful as a starting-point.

    Friday, June 25, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Permalink
  11. Andy wrote:

    I’ve always been a little obsessed with having a reason for doing the things that I do. I tend to go out of my way to justify things so that other people will understand. But you’re right. There isn’t always a reason, and I shouldn’t feel like I need to make one up just so that I can feel justified. Thanks for this post.

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 8:42 am | Permalink
  12. Dawn. wrote:

    I wholeheartedly agree but could never articulate it the way you just did. Thank you for the powerful words and the work that you do. I know exactly what you mean about the drive to fight for the “underdog.”

    Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 1:44 am | Permalink

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  1. Tweets that mention Tiger Beatdown › Autonomy -- Topsy.com on Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sarah Jaffe, Silvana Naguib. Silvana Naguib said: my newest piece at tiger beatdown: on autonomy, trauma, and social justice work: http://tigerbeatdown.com/2010/06/23/autonomy/ [...]