October 15, 2018

LIEBERMAN | When Speaking About Gendered Violence, Mean What You Say

Print More

There is no “type of girl” that I like to be. I don’t like it when I wear a headband and someone calls me a “headband girl.” I don’t like working at Temple of Zeus and being called a “Zeus girl.” I don’t want to be sceney, or facey, or really understood to be anything so narrow. I especially hate being the girl with no sense of humor.

It has happened twice, that I can remember, during my time at Cornell, when I’ve raised my hand, mid-seminar-style banter, and interrupted to say, “I don’t think this is funny.” Both times, the class was talking, in its own way, about violence against women. Both times, afterward, there was that pin-drop silence and a redness creeping up my neck like the tide.

“It’s not funny…

“Why are we laughing?”

If we sat every student down, interview-style, and asked them, “Do you think domestic abuse is funny?” I like to think no one would say, “Yes.” But we don’t live in a vacuum; it is more nuanced than that. Sometimes it comes up when we talk about musicians. Sometimes it comes up when we talk about characters in stories. Sometimes it’s hypothetical. So far, it’s never funny.

And after the silence, and the redness, recedes there is usually some sort of explanation. “We don’t support that” or “we didn’t mean that” or “it wasn’t like that.” And in a way, I usually do believe them. They didn’t mean it like that, but I took it like that. And somehow, when everything is said and done, I end up being the one to say, “I’m sorry.”

I’m sorry for causing a scene, or I’m sorry for misunderstanding you, or I’m sorry for getting so upset because everyone seems to forget that behind this joke, or behind this song, or behind what was really meant is someone who was beaten, or raped, or killed. I’m sorry that I’ve become a “type of girl” that shuts down a casual conversation to advocate for a cause. I’m sorry that now, they have to watch what they say around me.

Maybe this type of apology is socialized, but that doesn’t mean I can just shake it off.

A couple weeks ago, poet Andrea Gibson came to Cornell and held a poetry workshop. Some of the poetry we read during the event was really hard to hear, but they mentioned that they struggle with giving warnings about things like that because on any given day, any given person can be shocked or shattered by words that might have seemed banal to everyone else in the room.

This really resonated with me — maybe even if only because it’s hard to believe that everyone receives language in the same way; that they could hear one thing and feel it in the same way I do, but it makes them laugh, and it makes me cry. Maybe I only had to interrupt my classroom conversations because of how I was feeling or doing that day, or because of what I’ve experienced in my life, and maybe that specific scene of violence wasn’t so poignant for everyone else, and they would have been more sensitive if they had known.

These things are always going to happen. We are always going to say things that, maybe on accident, make one person in the room want to crumple, or run away, or cry out, “How could you?” And it may feel easy to become defensive, to explain ourselves, to clear it all up. I wish we could start with “I’m sorry” instead. Maybe we didn’t mean it that way, but to someone it felt that way, and we should feel sorry. “We are so sorry.”

And for those of us who take it that way, who speak up, who got hurt by language and want to do something about it, we should try boxing up that urge to say that we are sorry, too. It’s not easy to stop apologizing for how we feel, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try; it doesn’t mean that practice won’t help. We have all probably been on both sides of this, so I think we can all find a way to be more deliberate in what we say.