Shortly after I moved to New York some years ago, I found myself at a demonstration against two police officers who were accused of rape. They had reportedly been called to assist an inebriated young woman, but one of them raped her while the other served as lookout. The next morning she had the temerity, the chutzpah, to stand outside the precinct shouting up at the windows ‘just tell me if you used a condom!’
Police officers in the United States have been charged with over 400 rapes in the last 9 years. The demonstration that I attended was angry, loud, and mostly female. We had brought our baby grandson, outfitted with earphones to protect his hearing from the noise. But it was probably best he was protected from hearing the chants as well, as artful and creative as they were.
The two officers, Kenneth Moreno and Frank Mata, were acquitted on the rape charge, convicted only of “official misconduct.” The victim reported being “devastated” by this outcome but that she would rely on the “court of public opinion as the ultimate verdict.” One of the defendant’s lawyers, Joseph Tacopina, responded by saying “we are a nation of laws; not mob justice. It was the jury, and not the ‘public,’ that heard all of the testimony in this case, including that of the accuser, and rendered a verdict consistent with the evidence and the law.”
This raises the question: what should be the role of the public in high profile cases of this sort? Should those outside the courtroom even venture to take a position if they did not hear “all the testimony”? Tacopina equates public input to mob rule, but is it? The way in which one will be inclined to answer such questions may depend on how much one trusts the courts to protect justice in their country, without prejudice or corruption. Public scrutiny can be a way of putting pressure on the judicidiary to do a better job. Yet, of course, the “court of public opinion” is not always reliable either.
Today, rape has moved into the public sphere. What used to be relegated to whisper networks is now front page news. The multiple voices of victims are growing in strength, encouraged by each new example of bravery across the world. Of course, the #metoo movement is only the latest iteration of activism against sexual harassment and assault, but it is having a demonstrable effect on how, and how often, accusations are taken up in the mainstream press, and how seriously they are considered by courts and other institutions. And, interestingly, the successful confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and the ridicule of his principal accuser, have not stopped the uptick in accusations. The movement is showing no signs of decline.
The media’s attention has been impressively sustained but also politically complex. Despite wider and better coverage, mainstream media reports regularly focus on, and repeat ad nauseum, sensationalized details of specific events. Political analysis of structural causes remains rare. And accusers are still characterized as jealous, hysterical, or manipulating liars. Professor Blasey Ford was called “mixed up” by a member of the U.S. Senate, accused of behaving like a schoolgirl by the son of the President, and charged by the President himself of engaging in a calculated political plot.
Social media has shown itself to be a rather sharp double-edged sword. It has been used effectively by whistle blowers to name perpetrators, shame their defenders, force the mainstream to cover cases, and, in some instances, to improve the media’s coverage. But it has also proven to be an easy means to stage a virtual stoning of accusers. And further, it is not a productive avenue for nuanced debate about complex cases.
Yet, it is the newly untrammeled circulation of speech that has unquestionably instigated this new global movement, and in particular, the speech of survivors, from New Delhi to New York. It is their speech that has motivated a wide public discussion and a demand for procedural reforms. And yet survivors are rarely if ever in control of the ways in which their speech is edited, processed, packaged, publicized, globally transmitted, interpreted, taken up as a cause for action, or the kinds of actions that ensue. The executives who run the communications media, the courts, governments, and other institutions are making decisions about what stories to cover, whose testimony to solicit, and which experts to rely upon.
What we are witnessing, then, is not simply the emergence of a hidden discourse that is now coming into the light of day. Rather, this is a contestation over the terms in which accusations of sexual violation — ranging from harassment to rape — can enter the larger public domain. The #metoo movement is challenging the conventions of who can speak, what they can say, and how credibility will be judged. Accusers are breaking non-disclosure agreements and ignoring statutes of limitations. They are denouncing some of the highest status men in our societies. And the powerful are fighting back with everything at their disposal in an attempt to control, contain, and sometimes divert this new speech that is suddenly appearing in the midst of our public airwaves. This is the real struggle.
It is unrealistic for survivors to aim to control the circulations of our speech or to what ends it gets used. News organizations themselves cannot control or predict which stories, videos, tweets, or posts will go viral, much as they might try. The circulation of facts and ideas is perhaps more decentralized, globalized, and anarchic than at any time in human history. We can and should agitate for better routine practices in the selection and the framing of stories, and demand that major media outlets institute policies to cover stories in a responsible way without allowing accusers (or the accused) to be vilified, judged on their appearance, or presumptively discredited for other illegitimate reasons, such as their job (e.g. when some think ‘actresses know what they are getting in for.’) Activists can demand that news agencies take care in how accusers are physically described, who they choose to interview, and who is given the ability to write analytical pieces on the topic. But such reform efforts can only target institutions, not individuals or informal networks of communication and social media.
Hence, we need to consider ways to intervene in the broader public’s likely reception. This means challenging the frameworks by which credibility is being judged, or how the significance of a given event is assessed. And this requires taking a meta-level view. There is no reason to believe that such aspirations are utopian (that is, hopeless). Most everyone has gained some sophistication in how advertising preys on our insecurities to portray the implausible benefits of commodities, how media outlets curate and spin their coverage of major controversies, and how the delivery of news is carefully curated. Hence, we may be able to reach a little more sophistication about how the topic of sexual violation is presented.
Thus, I want to argue that we may realistically aim for a world in which the patterns in which our speech circulates can become more perspicuous as well as subject to critical analysis. This will not simply involve a critique of big media corporations, but a critical analysis of the ways in which accounts of sexual violation are interpreted and judged by the everyday conventions in our societies. We may realistically aim for broad publics to gain a more informed understanding and interpretation of the plethora of reports they are now getting about sexual violations, both globally and locally and in their own circles of acquaintance.
To achieve this I suggest we can make use of the concept of “echoing” from Jose Medina’s theory of resistance. This concept can help us to understand the reverberating influences of a global movement. But the concept of echoing also leads us to consider the conditions of echoability, or the way that a claim echoes in a particular way within a particular context, sometimes in ways that that change its intended meaning.
Medina develops these two related concepts, echoing and echoability, as a way to understand how social change occurs. In particular, he aims to refute overly simplified accounts that focus too much on individuals engaging in dramatic and courageous acts. As he explains, “the transformative impact of performance that we consider heroic is crucially dependent on social networks and daily practices that echo that performance.” In the absence of receptive social conditions, an individual act of resistance may be interpreted as criminal or foolish behavior or simply be unintelligible.
Medina’s prime example here is Rosa Parks, whose act of resistance to Jim Crow segregation was echoed in the context of a wider social ferment of hopeful and collective determination to make change. On a famous December evening in 1955, Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery Alabama, and was subsequently arrested. In ensuing news reports she was portrayed as simply too ‘tired’ after her work-day to relinquish her seat, and thus without political motivation. Although her arrest sparked a boycott that played a key role in ending segregation in public transport throughout the South, what was echoable about Parks’s act was limited. As the new biography by Jeanne Theoharis details, Parks was often interpreted through stereotypes about humble black working-class women whose moral strength lay in their simplicity.
This framing conflicted with the self-conscious, intentional, and militant political activity that actually took place on that bus. In truth, Rosa Parks’ act on that evening was quite intentional. She was an officer in her local chapter of the NAACP with a long record of activism, having been sent for years to do the dangerous field investigations of sexual violence perpetrated by whites in black communities. It was she who had been sent out to investigate the case of Recy Taylor, now the subject of an award winning documentary, who was snatched in broad daylight by a carload of white men in Abbeville Alabama. In fact, as a child Parks had kept company with her father on their front porch as he sat with a rifle across his lap to keep the Klan at bay.
These facts about Rosa Parks, if known, would have echoed her arrest in a far different way. The NAACP was quite aware of this, but they also knew that Parks’ age and demeanor could strike sympathy with many members of the public, even some of the white public, because it would resonate with conventional frames about ‘good’ black women. Parks was not the first person to be arrested for refusing to comply with segregation laws, but the NAACP decided to gamble on making this case a national story, betting its reception would be different.
Parks was an individual heroine, without doubt: she braved terrorist violence to advance a larger cause. As Theoharis recounts, small acts of resistance such as hers had resulted in beatings as well as arrests. And Parks had no reason to believe that she would benefit in any way from the publicity given this act of civil disobedience. In fact, for years after her arrest Parks remained an unobtrusive background to the public face of the civil rights movement, included almost as an afterthought at public events, still performing office work for her local chapter of the NAACP. It was many years before she became honored as the icon of the movement and even that late recognition was ambiguous, since the facts about who she really was continued to be distorted. She was generally portrayed even by movement leaders not as a long-term militant activist involved in a well-calculated strategic movement but as an older woman motivated simply by fatigue.
Echoing can happen in a complex variety of ways not all of which are productive for transforming the social relations of power. The historian Danielle L. McGuire’s study of the civil rights movement reveals a previously unknown dimension to a movement that many of us believe we know so much about. As it turns out, resistance to sexual violence was a key component of the struggle from Reconstruction through the 1960s. We have long known about the role that false accusations of sexual violence played in creating alibis for lynching. White racists argued that the maintenance of stringent Jim Crow laws, whether constitutional or not, was necessary to protect white women from rape. However, sexual relations between black women and white men, including assault and rape, were nowhere policed. White men had a right of access in one way or another, and the Klan enforced the black community’s powerlessness to intervene, no matter how outrageous the assault.
McGuire shows that things began to change qualitatively during the upsurge of activism in the 1940s. The Alabama chapter of the NAACP mobilized in 1944 to protest the rape of Recy Taylor, who was out walking with her family in the small town of Abbeville when she was forced into a car by a gang of white men and subsequently raped. In the next fifteen years more cases followed in Florida, Alabama, and the Carolinas. Black women and their families were courageously pressing charges and testifying in court. African American newspapers across the country covered these stories, and the white press occasionally picked them up. The evidence of routine sexual violence was coming out into a larger public domain, making clear that the problems African Americans faced in the South was not simply a segregation of facilities.
Rape in the Jim Crow south was, as in institutionalized wartime atrocities, a key element of social terror used to demoralize, demobilize, and weaken the subjugated communities. It involved the humiliation and torment of individual women but it also profoundly affected, both emotionally and politically, all who knew about the unpunished crimes. There was never a total silence around these rapes: even before the NAACP chapters began to take these cases to court, black communities often knew what happened, and even who had done the deed. In some cases, they knew because, as in the Abbeville case, women were snatched in public, and victims survived to tell the tale and name the perpetrators. In other cases the community knew because white men bragged. Far from a crime born in silence, the sexual violations of black women under conditions of segregation were known in both the subjugated communities and parts of the white communities, and had been since the era of slavery.
This confirms another point that Medina emphasizes: that the field of discourse is variegated. Even if there is an official silence in the majority community concerning a given issue — whether interracial rape or the existence of lesbians and gays — this does not mean the silence is total. Despite the fact that gay relationships were until recently invisible in the straight mainstream, many gay people had ways of communicating knowledge, finding out what places and people to avoid as well as where one might find a likely partner. Medina suggests further that they had ways of naming homophobia before that term was invented. The need to share reliable knowledge created methods of communication even if these were not echoable in the dominant discursive spaces. For the most part, this minoritized domain of discourse stood apart without contesting the mainstream, protecting its invisibility.
What becomes clear from this discussion of actual cases is that it is not speaking in and of itself that produces the productive echoes leading to social change, but the specific circumstances of speech: where it originates, where it is transmitted, how it is taken up, how it is understood, and by whom. This context will determine whether it can lead to action or must be born with a fatalist resignation. An avalanche of news reports can exacerbate the already existing tendency to be fatalistic about the possibility of improving social conditions for disempowered groups; it is not necessarily going to lead to collective resistance. It can also trigger forms of counter-action that serve other purposes, such as shoring up state power, racism, anti-immigrant hysteria, or the ideology of a protective patriarchy. Bringing sexual violence into the public domain can even lead to worsening the problem, such as when the actual causes are obscured, blame is misdirected, and solutions are put forward that perpetually disempower victims.
Social movements against oppression in whatever form are bound to consider the existing state of the diverse public spheres in which their agitational efforts may emerge. This is what the question of ‘echoability’ addresses. The civil rights movement created the conditions for productive resistance against the sexual violations of black women by white men for the first time in the history of the United States, and yet it is also the case that the echoability of this resistance was limited given the dominant ways that the U.S. framed its racial history. Civil rights activists themselves moved away from the focus on sexual crimes, knowing how such charges were likely to be echoed in the white mainstream. Although the sexual torments of black women were initially useful to garner public attention about the real nature of Jim Crow, rape as an issue was not considered a fit subject for a public, moral campaign led by a group too often demonized for hyper-sexuality. Stories about rape raised the specter of sex that many movement leaders wanted to avoid. White Citizen’s Councils were agitating against what they called “amalgamation,” the code word for miscegenation, and civil rights leaders did not want a public campaign that brought attention to sex across the color line, no matter how it occurred. Hence, the campaign against sexual violence was sidelined by the 1950s, and the struggles of black men became the focus of the movement.
Today we may be tempted to judge harshly those who made the decision to backpedal on the campaign against sexual victimization of black women by white men. But these decisions were cognizant of the fact that the discursive context was likely to create an echo-chamber of distortion. Similarly today we must grapple with the ways in which the problem of sexual violation in non-Western and particularly Muslim countries is echoed in the global North.
Nonetheless, we must continue to open up more venues for more speech. Given the distortions in the mainstream, we should develop more unofficial sites and alternative venues for our speech in which editorial curating comes under our control. More speech from a wider variety of survivors will undoubtedly complicate and enrich the narrative frameworks for understanding the problem, and provide resistance to neat imperial or racial or gender narratives that portray those with the most power as the least likely to be culpable. Although activists must recognize the existing echo chamber that affects the way our speech will be heard and assessed, we also need a strategy for altering the existing conditions of echoability. For this, more speech from a more diverse group of survivors is vital.