The Hand That Wields The Sword

People die every day.

This is obviously, trivially true. I remember being appalled during the coverage of the 2004 Tsunami, hearing newsreaders refer to 230,000 casualties including 26 Australians, in one breath. It was a shocking contrast, and patronising, as though we were incapable of caring about anybody but our own.

And yet I find many of the cynical reactions to the Bali executions on social media today terribly childish, laden as they are with claims that those of us who oppose these executions are only bothered because it’s over there, because it’s drug smugglers, because it’s Australians. These have been coupled, often, with claims that we will forget tomorrow and likely have no deeper commitment to human rights, that we are simply swept up in a Twitter storm. I have no time for this shallow reading. I do not believe the lives of Australians are worth more than the lives of others. I do not believe the death penalty is more appalling when applied in a non-English speaking country than it is when applied in America. I am not even especially more opposed to the executions of drug traffickers than to those of murderers. But I remember when those men were arrested, and I’ve seen them mentioned in the media for years, while I know nothing about anybody on death row in Japan, Saudi Arabia, or America.

So, yes. Yesterday night I broke down and wept over the phone to my partner at the senseless horror of the fact that the death penalty still occurs in 2015. No, I have never done this in response to any other execution. I can’t explain why this one has affected me so profoundly, but I know that I am not alone in having been affected by it. Thousands of people around Australia last night sat in their homes and thought about those men, and their families, and human rights, and the responsibilities of governments. Many of them reached out to share their distress and their compassion with others, and with the families of the men being executed, in the ways that were available to them. That is right, and good, and human.

Some of those people have gone back to their jobs today and will think little of other victims of backward “justice” systems, including our own. Some of them will even continue to support the death penalty in other circumstances. Many of us are hypocrites, one way or another. Nobody is capable of caring deeply about all injustices, every day. We cannot weep for all prisoners, or even all of those executed. It is imperative to shut out most of the terrible things that happen in the world, so long as you wish to continue living in it.

But to cynically denigrate all expressions of compassion and distress as hypocrisy and wagon-jumping is childish. If you blithely state that people are executed every day and ask why nobody mourns for the rest of them, while failing to mourn them yourself, you too are a hypocrite. If you meet each individual example of tragedy with a Dear Muslima, while never once stopping to confront the awful magnitude of the suffering that anybody experiences, you are a coward.

It’s easy not to care. It’s easy to find reason after reason to be emotionally disconnected from everybody except your loved ones, and to live your entire life without sparing a sincere thought for anyone you’ve never met. It’s easy to brush everything off with excuses. The Bali 9 should’ve known better than the smuggle heroin through Indonesia. Jill Meagher should’ve known better than to walk home alone on Sydney Rd. Women in Saudi Arabia should know better than to cheat on their husbands. Asylum seekers should know better than to get on boats to Australia. These are trivial observations, they are morally worthless. They have no value. They mean nothing.

Knowledge of potential consequences is irrelevant when those consequences are unjust, and appealing to the responsibility of the victimised party gives those with the real power a free pass. There’s nothing noble in that. Your cynicism isn’t buying you anything except comfort, and comfort is cheap.

 

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The real problem with “victim blaming”.

I’m often uncomfortable with the reflexive reaction to “victim blaming” in sexual assault, because although I have a negative reaction to it myself, I think the now-automated Twitter response actually mistakes the nature of the problem. The problem isn’t that nobody ever locates any personal responsibility with the victims of other crimes – they do, and police campaigns about locking your car are not met with cries of outrage. The simple act of giving well-meant advice is not the problem. The problem is that locking your car is really easy, while implementing the type of advice people often give young women is actually impossible if you want to live anything like a normal life.

At various times in my life, especially after high profile rapes and murders, I’ve been told by young men with straight faces that I shouldn’t get drunk around men I don’t know and that I shouldn’t go out unless I have a “safe” way to get home. Let’s just contemplate what this would mean for me as an unmarried woman, shall we? Seriously. Let’s think about it. No drinking at bars, pubs, nightclubs, or most house parties. That’s what that actually means in practical terms. So… what? I can only consume alcohol in the safety of my own home or at a (female) friend’s house?

Thankfully, only drinking in my own house also handily solves the problem of getting home at night after socialising, since my options in Melbourne are walking (not safe), taxis (definitely not safe), public transport (stops at midnight), cycling (inadvisable while drunk), and driving (illegal while drunk). A magic carpet, maybe?

I have a theory about this stupid advice, which is actually the same theory I have about the internet feminist freakouts about “victim blaming” that end in the words “teach men not to rape”, as though a few sessions with a white board and a laser pointer would solve all Adrian Bailey’s problems.

My theory is this: it is deeply distressing to confront the reality that most women are at constant low risk of sexual assault, either by friends, relatives, partners, or strangers, and that there is actually very little that can be done about that in the short term. We may hope for and try to enact cultural change, and we do our best to “stay safe” while still living as full citizens with freedom of movement and association, but the next Adrian Bailey is out there somewhere. Even in a completely fascist legal system with life sentences for rape, arbitrary sexual assault would still happen.

This is a fact that mature adults need to learn to live with – we should do all we can to curb sexual assault and mitigate the harms it causes, but this will take decades of hard work, and even then, incidence will never fall to zero. Ill thought-out advice that assumes women could make minor behaviour modifications for major reductions in risk is simplistic and embarrassing, and indicates that the people offering it have not seriously confronted either the issue of sexual assault in our society, or the practical realities of women’s lives.