February 17, 2007

We Are Not Freaks

[Update, June 2009: At some point in the last few years, the major post at TAPPED that prompted this essay seems to have disappeared from that site. It may be that it vanished as the result of site redesign and refurbishing of some kind -- although I must note that I would not be surprised in the least if someone decided to delete it altogether. It constituted a singular embarrassment.

But I also wrote two earlier, shorter entries about the same TAPPED post. Those entries, here and here (they're also linked below), summarized and excerpted relevant portions of the original TAPPED entry, as well as parts of my own comments on the TAPPED site. You may want to read those earlier posts of mine before proceeding to this one.]

I fear that many, if not most, of you who read this, will not fully understand what I'm about to discuss. Very tragically, this is unavoidable, for we live in a culture that suffers from severe emotional repression. Those issues that matter the most, that are genuinely sacred in the most profound sense of that word, are kept at a distance. To the extent we contemplate them at all, we forbid them to achieve their full reality.

I've discussed this in many essays with regard to our murderous foreign policy. Even the phrase "foreign policy" becomes a means of preventing ourselves from acknowledging the immense horror that flows from our actions. We murder hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings -- people who never wished us harm and who never threatened us -- and we speak of statistics, and whether and to what extent they are "accurate." That hundreds of thousands of innocent people are dead is not in dispute, just as we know that many hundreds of thousands more are terribly injured and have had their lives altered forever. But the horrors are not to be understood, not completely. This is only a "strategic blunder," perhaps a monumental one, but still just a "blunder." Our murders have been executed "incompetently." Most of those who unthinkingly parrot this line refuse to face what it would mean if we as a nation were competent murderers. In their descent into the amoral abyss, they appear to believe that would be an "improvement."

Our culture is suffused with ironic detachment, overintellectualization, and endless and ultimately futile policy debates -- while the murder goes on every day, as it will go on for at least several more years. Congress could stop these monstrous criminal acts within months, but they will not. Of course, they will continue to debate "foreign policy."

This severe repression is one of the hallmarks of our culture, and it can be found in most individuals. It begins in childhood, as all such mechanisms do (see the final part of my series, On Torture, and all of my Alice Miller essays for much more on this topic). For reasons I will probably never fully understand and which now don't matter a great deal, my emotions shoot through me like high voltage electricity on most days. I can't honestly recommend this state of affairs to anyone else: it often takes a terrible toll. On many days, especially when I contemplate and try to write about the horrors that engulf our world at present, it comes close to incapacitating me. Still, I would not change it for anything in the world, even if I could. Perhaps I have this capacity because I have always been drawn to the arts, and was once an actor. If I had made different choices, I might be working in the arts today in some capacity. It may be that what I try to do here is art in some form; when the writing goes well, I dare to think that might be true.

I've received a few emails about a couple of posts earlier this week. Those entries -- here and here -- concerned a deeply unfortunate post at TAPPED. To appreciate what follows, it might be best to read all three posts before continuing.

My emailers agreed with my outrage, and they understood, at least in general terms, the source of my anger. Still, they wondered: "But, Arthur, why are you so angry? Do you think expressing that kind of anger will help to change anyone's mind, or encourage others to try to look at these issues from a different perspective?" To explain my answer in part, I reposted yesterday an essay from two years ago: Living on the Inside...and Living on the Outside. In that piece, I detailed how and why it is undeniably true that those who enjoy the most privileged position in our culture -- those who are white, heterosexual and male -- cannot possibly understand, not completely, what it is like to be one of those who is shut out in different ways, and to varying degrees.

But even that essay is written from a perspective of some distance. It doesn't fully capture the emotional reality of being marginalized, being excluded, and very often being ridiculed, and even demonized. This realization hit me once again with great force as I read a comment recently added to that lengthy thread at TAPPED. Here it is:
oh this is tedious, yet as mortally debilitating as any of the thousand cuts. what i feel, down to the core, is that i have again been brought to the fore of the class, denuded, so that the students can point and discuss the freakish example that i am, as if this were the anatomy class of In Human Bondage. except you are the freaking freak, pal. it makes me sick to hear you confess your elastic confusions, because i suffer them daily, but the primary sickness is your entitlement, your entitlement to be a jiving idiot, to muse in public about me, that I am expected to stand here as you cheerfully enumerate the social failings you participate in, do not regret, and therefore have no intention of changing. do you imagine that i live in any state of happiness because you have found room for me in your untested world view, or that I don't know, every day of my life, that when push comes to shove you and your joshing buddies would shove me? do you somehow think, because a gay man describes your haircut, it somehow balances the force with which an entire being is declared revolting, and violently threatened, beginning with his very first memories? For your information you have not described me in any respect that is insightful, you have simply corralled me into a cage, whereby rudely pointing at me you demonstrate your limited understanding of the human heart and mind: I promise you that you are far from original in that enterprise. In fact, by so doing, you have described yourself. It is one thing to be ignorant, as we all are when it comes to fully understanding the prejudice that minorities we are not members of endure, but it is another to brag of it, which is the essence of your tone.
When you strip away all the verbiage, all the intellectual tap dancing, and all the efforts to "understand" and be "tolerant," that is the inescapable, the terrible bottom line: many of you think we are Freaks. Speaking for myself with regard to these issues, I don't want you to "understand" me or to be "tolerant" of me. I don't want you to "study" me, and try to graph all the various points of similarity and difference between us: I want you to recognize that I am completely and entirely a human being, just as you are. And I want you to understand fully what that means, and to genuinely mean it.

It is one thing to be openly hated and despised, as gays and lesbians are by many on the right. We're used to that, and we got used to it a long time ago. As was required, we manufactured intellectual and emotional armor to protect ourselves. In the current climate, we have to put it on every single damned day. It weighs a great deal, and it exacts an awful price. But without it, we would suffer injuries too grievous to be borne.

But how much worse it is to be cajoled into taking off that armor -- to hear you tell us that you understand we're "just like you" in all the ways that matter, and that we're really "just the same" -- and then to read or hear about "how easy" you think it is to "make fun" of us, especially when our status as Freaks is too obvious. How much worse it is when we believe you, when you tell us you think we're all equal -- except that you can get married, while almost every leading Democrat will say, well, no, we can't get married. But we can have "civil unions." Because, you see, Freaks don't get married.

But we had believed you, so we took off the armor -- and then you plunged the sword deep into our guts. You revealed that many of you actually do think we're Freaks. Many of you don't believe we're really "just like you."

Gays and lesbians are subjected to this many times a day. We receive the message that we're Freaks on television, we read it in newspapers, we hear it in nearby conversations -- and sometimes in conversations in which we are involved -- and we not infrequently hear it from "nice liberals" and almost all Democratic politicians. That comment at TAPPED reminded me of the newspaper story that first started me on my exploration of Alice Miller's work. Here's that very brief story, from my first essay about Miller:
RICE, Texas - A fifth grader with a rare deformity says two teachers put him on display for a science lesson.

Robert Will Harris has Stahl's ear, which causes points to form on the ears. He and family say two fourth-grade teachers at his school used his deformity to teach a lesson in genetics.

The boy says the teachers pulled him from his class twice in one day and took him to their classrooms to show his ears.

Officials with the Rice Independent School District acknowledge the incidents happened, but say the teachers meant no harm. They say the teachers were simply trying to teach genetics and family traits.

The family says the boy's ears have nothing to do with genetics. His parents say they no longer want their son used for show and tell.
And that is the way most of you treat gays and lesbians: as Freaks for "show and tell." You dress it up, you disguise it with sociological "studies" and learned discussions about "policy," and God knows you tell us all the time that you "mean well" and certainly "mean no harm" -- but at the end of the day, we're specimens to be dissected, examined and studied so that you may teach a "lesson" that you view as important.

You should think about what the boy in this news story felt. If he allowed himself to experience fully the humiliation and the shame, and the immense rage to which he was fully entitled, and if he felt it for more than a couple of minutes, it would kill him. That's how the repression begins in the case of the innocent victim: it is the only way he can survive. And that is what this culture, and what many of you, do to gays and lesbians, just as it was done and continues to be done to women and African-Americans, to many immigrants in our past and again today, and to far too many other groups to name.

I'm 58 now. I first became aware that most of you think I'm a Freak almost half a century ago. You should think about what that means, what it does to a person, and about the survival strategies we are forced to adopt, often so that we can simply get through the day.

And then think about what you need to change -- not about me, but about yourselves. I am not an object for your amusement, for your ridicule, or for your disgusting "jokes," just as I am not the subject for your earnest and "well-intentioned" discussions about "policy."

I am not a Freak. To those of you who think I am, no matter how subtly, and to those of you who have to exert so much diligent effort in your miserable attempt to "understand" and "tolerate" me, I now have only one thing to say:

God damn you to hell.