there are people who want to argue which is worse, rape or murder.
every time i run into this, it just makes my skin crawl and i want to get as far away as possible. it’s a completely irrational discussion, and so there’s no room for common accord, because it operates below the conscious mind. in the land of symbols.
i knew of a guy who went into a deep depression after his house was robbed. the thief had taken something of immense personal value. i think it was a ring from a dead loved one. the thought of the thief waltzing into his home with complete disregard for him and his family and casually taking (and probably pawning) his most treasured possession filled him with rage, but also made him feel impotent and marginalized, as if he (read: his feelings) didn’t matter at all. he was stripped.
i would find out later that he was in the beginnings of what would end in divorce, and so the theft became the touchstone, a symbol, for his inability to protect himself, to keep bad things from happening. it’s easy to look around and see other’s happiness — not everyone experiences pain at the same time or in the same way — and so to feel that the fault must be ours in some way — or else, why is everyone so happy but us? — and that we’re deficient, that there’s nothing we can do about that, that there’s no point in trying, that the world doesn’t care, etc. depression is a beast, and you can’t just “snap out of it.”
this is the power we give symbols. we’ll kill because of them. and i don’t mean a sign on a flag. i don’t even mean what that sign signifies. this is a tricky and subtle thought, but while people might ostensibly kill FOR the signified, that never actually appears. they kill BECAUSE of some perceived slight against it — an act, interpreted as a crime. a symbol. it could be as simple as reading a book.
in the 1930s, the WPA sent interviewers to the deep south. the last people born into slavery were dying, and there was a sense that their stories had to be captured on audio, in their own words. you can listen to the recordings. one story in particular stuck with me. an overseer caught a slave reading the bible behind the bunkhouse, so he dragged the man before the others, whipped him, and gouged his eyes out.
the overseer probably considered himself a christian. (why else would there be a bible lying around?) so reading the bible was not the crime. it was reading, period. that act symbolized something that was not tangible, and frankly not at all evident, as all of us now can easily recognize. in other words, there was not actual threat. the symbol was the only thing present.
before the genocide in rwanda, tutsis and hutus — which is a largely made-up distinction — passed each other on the street without resorting to immediate violence. no big deal. then followed a triggering event (or events) that changed the symbology such that the simple act of living, which before was incidental, was now perceived as a threat worthy of death.
that’s the power of symbols. our mental life is thick with them. the same act that is acceptable in some — reading a book — is a threat in others. the same act that was acceptable yesterday — walking down the street being a tutsi — is a crime worthy of death today, not for what they are, but for what they are assumed to represent. some symbols we inherit. some we make ourselves. but ALL of them are under our control.
so which is worse: rape, murder, or torture? is it better to be forcibly penetrated in your crotch or in your eye sockets?
i’ve seen assholes say that rape “isn’t the worst crime in the world” and offer “objective proof” in the form of a thought experiment (which i won’t repeat). i’ve also been accused of being offensive to rape victims simply by using the phrase “rape of the English language” in a humorous context.
if you engage in these kinds of arguments at all, first, shame on you. second, interrogate your symbology. if you believe that one or another of those things is worse than the others, if it upsets you when someone argues differently, if you have to make them understand why they’re wrong, then ask yourself what this one crime symbolizes that the others do not. ask yourself what power you’ve given it versus any other completely horrible thing that can happen to someone.
a theft can feel like rape. a rape can feel like murder. all of it can be torture. i would suggest that the proper response is not to engage in a ridiculous accounting, but to simply say that they are all abominable and not something anyone should ever have to experience, and that the need to rank and order them is childish and born of unresolved trauma that you’re projecting on others.
leave me out of it.