Rage is born of fear
September 3, 2013 § 11 Comments
There’s a power in rage that clouds our ability to understand it. Rage – real, honest fury that causes your skin to flush and your teeth to clench, that makes your hands close into fists involuntarily, that seething anger that moves you before you know you’ve moved – precludes reflection. It is incoherent in its insistence on response, part and parcel of the fight or flight response. And that is due to the fact that rage is ultimately just the other side of fear. It’s called fight or flight because it comes down to standing your ground to drive off a threat, or doing everything possible to escape it. Both are born out of the sense of a threat to one’s very survival. At times, therefore, the rage response can be disproportionate. Feeling deep rage over your drink order being mishandled or someone cutting you off in traffic is a sign of a response that does not take the circumstances into account, an unbalanced reaction.
Why do I bring this up? Because frankly, I’m trying to distance myself from the rage I felt this morning on hearing that, three years down the road from the original terrible rape joke, Mike Krahulik regrets most taking down the Dickwolves merchandise he was selling. He doesn’t regret telling an unfunny joke that made people reading his work feel a host of negative emotions, or his own stubborn refusal three years later to let that joke just die, no. He regrets that he ever backed down, even if it was just from selling merchandise about fictional wolves that rape people. Frankly, the rage I felt on hearing that news is disproportionate. I should not be enraged to the point where I have to go for a walk to vent that rage. I shouldn’t be so angry at the idea of this discussion still existing three years later that I want desperately for someone to attack me so I can expend this shrieking in my head.
I shouldn’t be so angry.
Why, then, am I so angry? I’ve always been a staunch defender of free expression, not just from the government but from social pressure as well. I’ve always argued that we don’t need government censorship when people’s lives can be ruined by social pressure, and that it’s a pernicious threat to personal liberty. If I believe that, why am I so angry now? Where does the rage come from?
The rage comes from fear.
I am afraid of rape jokes, because I am afraid of rape, and rapists. I am afraid of attitudes that trivialize rape, that make rapists emboldened or give them the idea that rape isn’t really very serious. When Chelsea Manning made her desire to live as a woman public, after her trial and conviction, one of the first things said by pundits was a rape joke. We live in a culture where people can rape others and not even believe they’re a rapist. People who work in creating our media think rape is just a character trait, a trivial, throwaway moment used to establish how bad a dude someone is. We tell these jokes and laugh about these things, we laugh not the rueful laughter of someone who sees a horrible truth and seeks to laugh to escape it but the laughter of the powerful mocking the powerless for their pain, the laughter of the booted man stepping on a neck. What’s the big deal, we’re asked, don’t you have a sense of humor and then the laughter again.
There are of course many different kinds of comedy. There is comedy that seeks to point out the hypocrisies and failings of ourselves, our culture, our world and works. There is the comedy of release, that sees the horrible and the repulsive and laughs to salvage something from the pain and misery. There is the comedy that seeks to change the world, the comedy that seeks only to explicate it. And there is the comedy of oppression, of the status quo mocking those that don’t fit in, aren’t part of the program. I’ve said before that I’m not the joke police, because such an activity is both absurd and immaterial. Comedy is a subjective as art – what I find funny may not amuse you in the slightest. Saying “X isn’t funny” no matter what X is comes to nothing, because the most I can say with any real conviction is that X isn’t funny to me. Why, therefore, are rape jokes not knee splitting hilarity to me? I have several reasons. Some are objective and others subjective, some general trends while others are deeply personal.
Why do I fear rape jokes? Because I remember being ten.
There is a special helplessness in the moment of violation that never leaves you. It washes out all your memories of before it happened, and smears everything that comes after it with its color. You will learn to cope, because you must, although how you cope may not be terribly effective and you may spend the rest of your life trying to do it. But it will always be with you. Whether you are a child or an adult when it happens only really changes degrees – you will always be pitted, scarred, you will always carry that awful experience cut into you. To have that then being held up again and again and again as nothing, the punchline to a bad joke, to have this bleeding weeping thing inside of you chortled over takes a cold dead hand and presses on that broken place and whispers “Don’t you have a sense of humor?” while it drags all the viscera back out and throws a heap of bloody intestines in your face. Again. And you feel it all again, the feeling of dirt in your mouth, of tears streaming down your face and racking, choking sobbing that no one hears and no one answers. The breath of someone you don’t want on your skin. Pain you don’t understand and can’t process. Something that you thought you’d never escape pressing you down, something you might have been willing to die to escape, and isn’t it funny? Why aren’t you laughing? Don’t you have a sense of humor?
The rage comes from that place. Because time hardens you, and you grow a scab over it, and that scab? It makes living possible. It makes life possible. It makes it so you can go on, so that you can meet someone and not flinch at their touch, that you can say yes to life despite that place inside you. That you can have days when you’re not thinking about it. Days when you don’t remember what a knife held to your throat and whispering, cackling in your ears was like. And then someone decides hey, isn’t it funny and laughs at that thing you carry around inside you like a sore. Someone decides isn’t this silly, isn’t this trivial, isn’t this how we can tell Doctor Morlock is a bad dude and they break open that scab and haul everything back out into the world again and make you feel it. And laugh at it. Laugh at you.
A world where everybody thinks this is funny is a frightening world. It’s a world where it could happen again. A world where someone you know and like and even maybe trust could turn into someone who does that thing and doesn’t even see it as that thing. It is terrifying for me to move in a world where at any second I could be ten again, and helpless before that, and be forced to experience it again. And when I feel that fear, it becomes rage in that alchemy of the body, that response to a threat that says “Do we escape or do we deter through attack?” Because I can’t escape it, can I? it’s everywhere. It’s pundits laughing about a woman being raped in prison, it’s movies where people rape just to establish their evil – where the act of rape is not, in and of itself, so monstrous that it is the central piece but is rather just a centerpiece, a garnish that serves to illustrate, a detail only. Where jokes about rape are told casually, and often the rape isn’t even part of the joke – jokes where the rape is only in the joke because it’s amusing to imagine for the people telling it. So there’s no escape. You can’t be safe, of course, but you can’t even pretend you can be safe. You can’t even keep your scabs closed. You have to have one of the worst things that can happen, that did happen, yanked back out into your mind and laughed at because some skinny little shithead who got made fun of in school thinks he owns oppression.
There’s that rage again.
And yes, I admit it. I am afraid right now. I am afraid, because I can’t live through it over and over again every day, and I can’t escape it. Because even the things I use for escape purposes love to laugh at me for it.
If you think this is funny, well, I can’t really argue with you. Humor is subjective, and comedy doesn’t have to be subversive to be funny. But comedy that exists to support cruelty and maintain the status quo, comedy that trivializes suffering and supports those that make others suffer isn’t funny to me. I will admit to finding some dark comedy potential in these champions of personal self expression thinking it’s perfectly okay for them to tell jokes about the most awful thing in many people’s lives, but then they seem to totally lose the ability to champion the free speech of those calling them shitbags of human misery for doing so. I guess it’s only funny until it is about them. Their pain isn’t funny, you see. Only ours is.
Mel Brooks once said “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” I guess it’s something like that.