I’ve been having a bad week. Surprisingly, I do not have a sudden urge to buy guns and use them. It’s rather unsettling that I have no doubt that I could do that. Today. Just walk across the street from my house and buy a gun from the “vintage military” dealer over there and then go shoot… something. Well, being a white woman in New Hampshire, I could buy the gun. Being me, I probably couldn’t bring myself to fire it. Most certainly I could not fire it at any being.
Still, I could acquire a gun with ease and little cost. I could set out to fire it at things and not be questioned. I could do all that with one sales transaction and no regard for my motivations whatsoever, no matter who I am, as long as I’m white and have the money. That is the culture we live in. That is the culture that enabled the truly monstrous murders we witnessed this week.
So it’s been a bad week; I’m firing off words instead.
I’ve heard all reactions to the insanity down in Georgia this week. I live in a bias confirmation bubble of my own making in that I do not grant access to the sort of people who would condone those murders. So all the reactions I’ve heard are negative. Women of my acquaintance are almost universally appalled and enraged. Most non-whites as well. But there are a number of people trying to hold down the center even in this case, and I find that deeply disturbing.
This is an example. A white man is angered and disgusted. He tries not to appear as shocked as I think he is. (Because guys.) When I say that these acts have invalidated everything I, as a white person, could say, that I feel guilt by association because I am benefitting from the systemic racism that enables these atrocities and have not yet managed to extract myself from that system, he counters:
“I take the view that these people are morons. We’re not like that. Most of us are trying to do better.”
And this is where my head just explodes. No. That is utterly insufficient. As long as there is blood, trying is not enough. As long as there are benefits conferred that enable bloodshed, trying is not enough. As long as we are enmeshed in a culture that breeds racism, misogyny and white male entitlement and as long as we are not actively ripping that culture up by the roots, trying is not enough.
It’s not enough for me.
Moreover, it is not those others with guns who are the killers, or it’s not only them. It is every one of us. It is the man who says he’s not like that but buys a new cell phone every other year, contributing to women laboring in unsafe conditions for slave wages to both assemble the new phone and “recycle” the toxic waste in the used one, and sells television advertising which objectifies young white women and vilifies or erases nearly every other group all day long, every day. It is the young woman who is horrified by the murders of other women but buys highly processed and packaged foods and clothes made from synthetic fibers in distant countries, all of which necessitate the denigration of mostly women in poor communities, and spends her evenings watching Hallmark movies on Netflix, which list of unfair labor practices, excessive resource use, and highly problematic imagery is far too long for this post. It is the mother who does not specifically explain to her son that women are neither objects nor possessions and that this applies to all women regardless of their occupation. It is the young person who spends hours playing violently sexist video games and, while the digital murder is paused, retweets a mildly racist joke. All these superficially benign acts buttress the act of murder. All of us helped to fire that gun eight times.
And we’re not trying to do better. We grimly shake our heads and tell ourselves we would never do that disgusting thing. But we don’t change anything in our own lives to make that disgusting thing less likely to happen. We don’t stop supporting the industries and businesses that profit from that disgusting thing. We don’t stop engaging with art and entertainment that glorifies violence and reinforces the symbolism that justifies and promotes that disgusting thing. We don’t stop daily creating the culture that is built upon that disgusting thing. We tell ourselves stories that soothe us into the belief that we are better than them, that we are not guilty of that disgusting thing. But we don’t make a better world where that disgusting thing can’t happen.
What would that look like? What would a culture that does not bear the guilt look like? How much of our culture would survive merely fixing one problem?
Let’s start with misogyny. If we were to erase the abuse and denigration of women — all women — from our world, what would also vanish? There is the low hanging fruit. Love and acceptance would not be based on body image. Violent crimes against women would be prosecuted to the utmost every single time. Women would receive equal wages and would have equal voice in society.
And right there, we’ve already reached a tipping point. Equal voice implies equal representation. Governing bodies of all sorts would need to reserve half of all seats for women because men clearly can not be our voices. Equal wages implies equal access to all wage jobs. Both equal wage and equal voice imply that all work and values that have been historically denigrated in association with women be made equal to those associated with men. Care work would be valued and paid at least as well as any historically male-dominant labor. Wages for women in all fields would be equal (not equivalent) to wages paid to men.
To do any of these things would crash our economic system because it can’t pay high wages to women, who do the vast majority of low status work, and still reap profits; and a profit-driven system likely can’t afford to pay for reproductive labor and most care work at all. Furthermore, lacking a permanent basal layer, hierarchical structures — from the patriarchal family to the board room to the national government — would collapse. Our systems are predicated on the low status and low value of women. When women are equally valued and heard, a great many things fall apart. So even the low hanging fruit is out of reach within this culture.
Notice we have not addressed the objectification of a woman’s body, the different ways we raise our sons compared to our daughters, the erasure of women from our cultural stories, nor the theft of the creative and intellectual contributions of women to our culture. We have not addressed the way language does not allow us to talk about many gender issues, does not allow us to even conceive of women filling most prestigious roles. We have not addressed seemingly simple things like assigning an identity to a girl-child that is not dependent upon a man. No, we have crashed society merely in according women equal pay and representation.
Fixing one part of one problem would create an entirely different world. That is the scale of injustice built into our culture. That is also the weight of guilt that we who benefit bear. That is the measure of complicity when we do nothing. Think about that. Everything we do in this culture is balanced on the subjugation of women. At a minimum. It is also balanced on the subjugation and devaluing of nearly all other groups of humans alive today, all humans in the future, and the entirety of the non-human world. Our culture is dependent upon destruction and violence, inequality and injustice. Our culture is designed to benefit a very small group of white men and harm nearly everything else on the planet.
This might sound pessimistic. We can’t stop the harm unless we break our culture and rip out large portions of it. But I don’t see it that way. Think, instead, of how easy it would be to break this immiseration factory. Put together safety nets, ensure that needs will be met after it falls, and then push just one pillar. Just make women equal to men. Just make reparations for racism. Just stop stealing from the future. Just, just, just. Choose one and it all falls down. Fix one problem and we fix them all. Fix one problem and we make a happier, healthier, more hopeful world.
Now, I have not discussed the non-human world because this week has been about human-on-human abuse. But if we bring down the immiseration factory, we also stop destroying our home planet. Creating a just world for all humanity will also create a safe and healthy world for all beings. Everything is interconnected; we can’t do one thing. And that, too, should be a very hopeful thought!
So back to the beginning: what is enough? What do you do to lift the culpability from your shoulders? How do you get your finger off the trigger?
First, accept that you are the problem. It is not just those disgusting monsters out there. The monsters are grown from your lifestyle, from the decisions you have made, from the values you hold, from the culture that you create. Stop telling yourself that what you do does not matter. It does. What you do is the only thing that matters for each and every one of us. If you privilege your wants over harm done to others to meet those wants — and nearly everything in the global market does harm to others — then you are the monster. You need to recognize that.
Next, you need to open your eyes and see just how many things in your life are harmful to others. Trace your stuff back to its origins. Trace your ideas back to their inception. Understand interdependence and interconnection. We maintain this monstrous system through building up an enormous edifice of sheer willful ignorance. We put up filters and create false narratives to cocoon ourselves, to blind ourselves. Open your eyes and take stock of what is real.
Then, discard every last monstrous thing.
This is different for different people. Some have a good deal of monstrosity buttressing their lives; some have very little. Nearly all of us have values and aspirations that need to be changed or eliminated. I won’t pretend that this will be easy. It has not been easy for me. Nor am I done after decades of learning and adjustment. But as greater numbers of people engage with this process, it will become easier — until suddenly we’ll reach a critical mass and the whole mess will just implode.
Of course, it would be good if we had the next thing put together before this one falls apart. But I can’t help thinking that for most of the world nothing is better than the evil something we have now. Indeed, perhaps the majority of the world would not be affected in any negative way at all from a new nothing because they do not benefit in any way from the evil something. So even if we don’t get the replacement erected in time, most people are still going to be better off when all this crumbles. Of course, those who benefit the most now will lose the most. But that’s the price this small group of people has not been paying throughout history. They will not be losing what they earned; they will be giving back what they have stolen.
So what is enough? Getting out of this culture. Nothing less. If you are part of it, you are part of the problem. And that’s more guilt than I can bear.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021