As more and more women push society to acknowledge and end the dangerous entitlement men hold for women’s bodies, the next generation watches. The message they receive from the way society and the justice system debase those brave enough to come forward while rallying behind the right for “boys to be boys” could not be clearer. It defines for them who society deems most worthy of sympathy and protection. It is not women.
In the lack of sympathy society confers to victims of sexual assault, we see the hierarchy of humanness that underlies the system. In order to weave justice for women into the fabric of our society, we must understand the pervasiveness of this hierarchy. The most salient evidence for it is one common argument to support the end to sexual assault: “what if it was your sister, or your wife, or your mother?” This has proven to be a convincing argument, but the dangerous assumption it makes is that women are only worth saving if they are related to “you.” This says that women are not fully deserving of justice in their own right; they are only made real when you know them. It feels like a painful version of the question of a tree falling in an empty forest; just because you do not know the woman who has been sexually assaulted, it does not mean that she does not feel pain. Regardless of if you ever meet her, she is human. And she deserves justice.
Judith Butler, a philosopher and gender theorist, summarizes this concept with the term grievability. In society’s value system, women we don’t know are less grievable than those we do and men are more grievable than women. The hierarchy the term allows us to imagine extends far beyond these three categories. It even includes objects. Often, there is more emotion when someone spills water on their laptop than when they hear about another mass shooting. Each of us must reflect on how we confer grievability on the populations around us, fat lives, black lives, queer lives, and adjust so that we feel enough pain to challenge the injustices against these groups. We must understand how and where we have been socialized to place these groups on the hierarchy of grievability, and we must overturn that order. When we feel more about spilling water on our laptops than when hearing about another mass shooting, something must be done.
NPR’s story about Daryl Davis, a black blues musician who has convinced 200 Ku Klux Klan members to leave the KKK by befriending them, evidences the power of understanding Butler’s concept. By coming into their lives, Davis forced them to acknowledge his humanity, to understand the grievability of black people.
In an age of incarcerated children, of unpunished sexual assault, of Trump, we must take this concept of grievability and use it to prevent ourselves from becoming numb or complacent. Learning that women and children were teargassed at the Tijuana border should elicit far more shock and concern than dropping your iPhone. Feeling the full weight of the grievability that people deserve does require emotional work, but, especially for those who do not belong to dehumanized groups, we cannot afford not to feel it. It may make reading the news more painful when you allow yourself to feel the pain behind the statistics and stories, but it must be done if we want to remain angry enough to act.