A Fuller Reckoning
Generosity, conflict and ugliness in how we talk about the hard stuff
Hello readers, including the many of you who signed up this week - welcome. This is mostly a place for feminism, politics, and journalism stuff (and a little food, a little yoga, and a lot of photos of my cats: three-footed Pete, a Brooklyn native, and bottom-heavy Anchovy, born in Nairobi). I hope you enjoy what you find here.
This is not the Kobe Bryant weekly. But I hope you’ll indulge me a few last thoughts on the conversation around his passing.
The newsletter I wrote on Kobe, celebrity, violence against women and the complications of human legacies garnered a lot of feedback. Much of it was positive, and in a social media economy that often seems to run on outrage, I was grateful for the many notes and messages I received from women and men who said the piece resonated with them. Thank you. I heard from more than one rape survivor who said that the media coverage and the legal treatment of the young woman in the Kobe Bryant case was the reason they didn’t report their assaults. For me, that was such an important reminder of why we need to change the conversation — why we need to have the hard conversations in the first place. Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when it’s complicated. It’s never “too soon” — it’s usually too late.
A lot of the feedback was also frankly vile.
But some of the commentary I’ve read about this question — how do you tell the whole truth? — was critical but thoughtful, and I’ve been considering so much of what has come my way. What has pushed me the most are the many thoughtful posts I’ve read about the role of race.
Some of that discussion has been really reductive. But a lot of it has been tremendously useful. Is race relevant here? In a racist society, race is always relevant. Even those of us who think it’s crucial to talk about sexual violence no matter what can also (must also) consider the many complexities at play. So I wanted to share a few posts that I found particularly compelling and that I think move this conversation forward in valuable ways. I hope you’ll read them.
First is this, from Brandee Jasmine Mimitzraiem. She writes, in part:
And, so, Kobe.
I ain't never been a Kobe Bryant fan. Won't never be.
But if we're going to tell the truth about who he was, we need to tell the whole truth.
He raped her.
Dassit. End of discussion. He raped her.
And like 99% of rapists, he was never convicted. He paid his victim restitution. Literally.
Restitution doesn't make her whole. It doesn't unrape her. But restitution is also justice.
And then? Then he grew up.
He advocated for women athletes. (And y'all know that advocating for professional women athletes is also advocating for Queer Black Women and that's where *my* priority is. Be clear where *I* stand.)
He built institutions to serve marginalized children.
He meant hope and promise to Black people. He meant hope and promise to poor people. He meant hope and. promise to people of color.
If your position on the web doesn't allow you to see Kobe Bryant's impact on the rest of the web: your analysis is flawed.
I also liked this, from Aly Wane (again only posted here in part — click through to read it all, please):
I also don't think that this erases the deep trauma he caused.
I also believe in healing, growth and redemption.
I also cried when I heard he died, because feelings are not political agendas and many of these celebrities are intertwined in our memories in ways that bypass our frontal cortex (I'm looking at you Michael Jackson). I remember "where i was when Kobe, the athlete did [insert great athletic achievement]."
I also know that the ability to compartmentalize is a luxury of the privileged, and as someone who has not been sexually abused I have privilege.
I also know that his child died with him and that she deserved a longer life.
I also mourn for his family.
I also hold his survivor and other sexual assault survivors in the Light tonight.
I stand by every word I wrote on Sunday. But it is also always a humbling experience to put your words out into the universe and to hear back but also but also but also and realize that you’ve missed some big things — that there are more words to say, and that you are probably not the right person to say them. In some ways, this has been a heartening moment. It’s been striking, seeing so many folks who I am sure hated or would have hated my piece choosing generosity, choosing to assume good faith, choosing to act in alignment with their values of decency and compassion and doing the work. I am tremendously grateful, and am trying to respond in kind by doing work of my own — avoiding defensiveness, recognizing that no one is infallible and no one sees the whole picture, and understanding that the work is to push yourself to expand the view. There is no one universal right answer to some of these extremely thorny questions, no scale that weighs the grief of survivors against the grief of a devastated family. But for those of us who care about justice of all kinds, we have to always challenge ourselves, to recalibrate our scales as we learn more, and fold into our analysis perspectives that are not only from our vantage point.
Separately, I want to address the question of what happens when women speak about things lots of people don’t want to hear. I am dividing this section from the one above it because I want to be clear that I am talking about two different things. Disagreement is not abuse. And I’m not talking about “tone” or politeness or civility — disagreement can be fiery and angry and uncivil and still valid and considered. So I am not talking, here, about criticism — I am definitely not talking about the kinds of thoughtful reflections I posted above, and I’m not even talking about comments like “it’s wrong to post this so soon” or “this is insensitive” or “this is so white.”
I am saying: The substance of your disagreement matters. Its purpose matters. And it has been pretty devastating to see the way so many people — including serious, prominent, powerful people — have responded to women who insist on talking about sexual violence right now.
It is pretty devastating to see that the response has been shut up.
We are, in some ways, in a golden age of women speaking out. The #MeToo movement relies on that collective voice — the sense that sexual violence is not a string of individual bad acts, but a chain of interrelated and interconnected events. From Harvey Weinstein to Charlie Rose to Donald Trump to Roger Ailes to R. Kelly, we’ve seen that the issue isn’t just bad men, but entire systems that spring into action to protect the men accused of doing wrong. It’s been women choosing to talk that has pulled back the cover on all of it. It has made obvious and undeniable what so many were invested in denying.
But there seem to be limits to our willingness to understand. There are limits to when we think women are allowed to open their mouths.
Jessica Valenti wrote a very good piece about this, and her point is crucial: whatever you feel about the propriety of women speaking about alleged sexual assault so soon after a beloved person has died, and whatever you think about the complicated web of issues involved here, from race to family to community to propriety to what compassion means — and we should all think about those things — it’s not ok to shout women down for speaking the truth. It’s not ok to demand that we shut up. It’s not ok to threaten them — and it’s definitely not ok to professionally penalize them.
I have in tandem been awed by the amount of grace shown by so many people who strongly disagreed with my previous newsletter, and scared by the amount of vitriol. Not scared in a “I fear for my safety” way; scared, instead, at how vicious the backlash has been, at the fact that #MeToo does seem to have upper limits, at what angry people fall back on when a woman says something they don’t like. At what that all means.
Scared about what it says about how far we think we’ve come, and what might be brewing in response. Sad for survivors of violence, and women who will be survivors of violence, who will inevitably see their own willingness to speak out shaped by the conversations we are having right now, in real time.
It’s telling, I think, that much of the harassment aimed at women in the wake of this story has been less about “you’re wrong” or “but also” or even “this is a bad take” and more about “you need to shut up” (or as one delightful person on Facebook put it on the page of some guy I went to high school with, “bitch needs a punch to the throat to shut her up.”) And that’s relatively par for the course (and even tame) compared to other comments streaming into my inbox, my Twitter mentions, my Facebook page, even my Instagram, which I had to take private (the most annoying, honestly, since in a big ugly internet, Instagram is my safe place to scroll through cat photos and everyone else’s beautiful vacations. Leave the verbal abuse to Twitter, please).
I want to highlight this systematic demand that women shut up because it’s the entire problem, isn’t it? I know some people spoke from a place of distress and anger (none of us is perfect on the internet, and especially when tragedy hits, emotions go raw). But others spoke from a deeper sense of entitlement to have pubic spaces and conversations cater to their comfort, and evinced a raw rage when women stepped out of our appointed place as quiet caretakers, deferential to others’ desires. “Shut up, bitch” isn’t disagreement. It’s telling on yourself.
I’ve been writing about women’s rights on the internet for almost two decades. Not once in that time has there not been a fairly steady chorus of shut up in my ears. Some of the most productive moments have come out of conversations that began with “you’re missing something important here” or “this pissed me off” or “this is ignorant” or “I disagree” or “are you the right person to tell this story?” But not once from shut up.
I am very tired of hearing it. I think a lot of women are very tired of hearing it.