But this post on Feministing has irritated and saddened me enough to nudge me out of my reticence. I should actually say that the comment thread following the post has irritated and saddened me. I guess I'm always surprised by the either-or thinking that's such a common rhetorical tool in our political environment. Or I'm always surprised when seemingly thoughtful, progressive people fall for it. I expect conservatives to take a "hard" stance on issues like this and view a person who commits a terribly violent act like Sanchez's as hopelessly evil, and exclusively and wholly responsible for the act, and inexcusable, and disposable. I expect them to refuse to view the situation in context or question the systemic and cultural forces at play in the situation or ponder what might have been done to prevent a situation like this. I expect that from conservatives, who tend to be lacking in compassion and an understanding of the complexity/nuance of real life. But I'm taken aback when people who are willingly spending time in a feminist/progressive space exhibit these kinds of attitudes, and this either-or thinking. So, for my own sake if for nobody else's, I feel like clarifying a few things.
- A little review from Critical Thinking 101. Oftentimes when someone is trying to get you to agree with them, they'll act as if there are only two options: something you would never agree to, or their claim. Like this: "Either the earth is flat, or you have a turnip growing out of your head." Of course, the only correct answer is "none of the above." And that's easy to recognize when it's a simple and ridiculous dichotomy like the example above. But when the topic of conversation is complex and somewhat confusing, and feelings are running high, it can be hard to back off and question the original dichotomy with which you were presented.
- It is not the case that questioning a person's mental state and competence when they committed a violent act amounts to justifying their actions or portraying them as innocent or denying they had any responsibility for the action. This claim is based on a false dilemma.
- (I'm just gonna straight-up start quoting my own comments from Feministing here, 'cause I'm too lazy to type it all out again)
Many events in history have demonstrated that people can be induced to do terrible things in the right circumstances. Good people, who seemed to be compassionate and thoughtful people in other circumstances. Take the situations people find themselves during wartime, or in prison, for example. Brainwashing and mind-altering drugs have also had this effect on people. Heck, look at the Stanford prison experiments or the Milgram experiments. No matter what our cultural mythology says about inherently good and bad people, the evidence shows that anyone is capable of performing horribly violent actions given the right set of circumstances. And it's uncomfortable to think that, because we're accustomed to the idea that every action you undertake, in any situation, is an unquestionable sign of your permanent character. Our cultural mythology also includes the idea that once a person has committed a deeply unethical act, s/he is irretrievably damaged and not fit to live. And I understand that these are the ideas that many of us have internalized via our culture. But feminism and humanism question these ideas,
partially on the basis of the evidence I've mentioned above, and partially on
the basis of valuing each human life in and of itself.
- There's a huge element of privilege involved in our discussion of cases like this, which may well lead us to view it as a clear-cut, either/or kind of thing:
I guess I think these are compatible. I do believe she should feel guilty and horrible, but that doesn't mean I can't feel a great deal of pity for her. It's not either/or. It's both/and. I am privileged in that I have never had mental health issues and was able to adjust to parenting and to have a good relationship with my kids. But I acknowledge that not everyone is as privileged in this way, and I feel a lot of empathy for her, even as I am horrified by the tragic way her baby died. I don't have to choose. I can feel both things at the same time.
- Another element of privilege that's evident in the discussion of this case reveals itself in the way we conceptualize her actions. I am not schizophrenic, have never suffered from delusions, and have never had any mental health issues. Thus I have always acted in what we would characterize as a rational, self-directed way. So it's natural for me to tend to try to understand and make sense of other people's behavior from this frame of reference. It's natural to wonder "why on earth would she do that?" and "what was she thinking?" But to insist that her behavior has to make sense in my framework is to erase her as a human being. When a person is experiencing delusions, they don't perceive reality in the way they would if they weren't delusional. They might not perceive the being in front of them as their child, or even a child. They might perceive the being in front of the as their child, but also perceive some intensely compelling reason why subjecting that child to violence is the only thing to do, or an act of love, or a means of saving the child from future harm. In that sense, the behavior in question is profoundly rational - it's just based on different reasons than you or I would find compelling. But to insist that the behavior of a delusional person must fit into the framework of someone who's not delusional, and must be judged using the criteria we would use to judge the actions of a non-delusional person is to erase that person and his/her illness and his/her humanity.
- I suspect that the lack of empathy that's being shown for Sanchez has more than just a little to do with the fact that she's not married and white and blond and identical to our cultural ideal. People are less inclined to inquire into what went wrong and merely dismiss the person as evil if they are already constructed as less-than-civilized and exotic and savage, as WOC are often constructed in our culture.
- Although I don't take myself to be the foremost authority on feminism, I think that empathy should always be a fundamental part of it. And, to quote myself again
a feminism that fails to inquire into the social situation and the cultural forces that led up to this event is an impotent and useless thing.
I'm sure there's more that could be said about this story, but I'm too burned out on it to go on. Your thoughts?