The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

“Daddy,” Sylvia Plath

When people declare “He literally lost his mind” or when TV and radio ad after ad announces “Not available in all states,” I cringe because the chosen phrasing makes a claim that is opposite of what is intended.

As a writer and English teacher, I am possibly more attuned to language than the average person, but I also recognize that careless language is often related to careless thinking — the words and phrasings we choose and use have a symbiotic relationship with how we frame and view the world.

As a chronically anxious person, I recognize that language is one way in which I can negotiate with my anxiety — write about it or simply have someone with whom I can share the intricate details of my irrational self.

Writing and talk — language — help me recognize through naming what I am facing; language is liberating, I believe, because it is essentially human.

Without language, with our language monitored, or with our language censored, our voices silenced, we are rendered less human; as Arundhati Roy has explained, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

And so I find myself turning to language — reading, writing, and talking — when faced with the monstrosity of the Brock Turner rape case, a calloused boot in the face once again entrenching the power of privilege over basic human dignity — both racialized and genderized.

The most powerful words I have found about this act of violence and miscarriage of justice have been about words themselves:

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From this, my mind raced to Stevie Smith’s poem “Not Waving but Drowning,” in part:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

The coincidence of the word “drowning” is bolstered by this poem’s message about communication; this is a darkly ironic poem, prompting an uncomfortable smile about the dire consequences of misreading a desperate person’s efforts to be heard, to be recognized.

Codified by the criminal justice system, represented by a judge, Turner’s raping of an unconscious woman has been deemed about how this act of violence impact’s Turner’s privileged life.

His rape victim conveniently marginalized — she is a real-world parallel of the dead man in Smith’s poem, her humanity resting on her own words of rebuttal to the miscarriage of justice spawned by the fraternal bond between two Stanford males.

Like the rape victim in Adrienne Rich’s poem, Turner’s victim has been assaulted twice; Rich’s victim realizes the assault has rendered her victim and criminal:

…You have to confess
to him, you are guilty of the crime
of having been forced.

Turner’s victim has been pronounced less than Turner — the consequences of his violence more important for him than for her, the judgment asserted.

Sexism, like racism, is systemic — both the result of individuals and an essential element of the collective, how the system works.

So it may appear merely academic to focus on words, how we talk about this world.

But it isn’t trivial at all.

We must begin to dismantle a dehumanizing culture by naming that which is dehumanizing. We are confronted by the fact that there is only sex or rape just as we know there is only swimming or drowning.

Words matter, and basic human dignity is not waving to us on the shore; it is drowning, and we aren’t paying attention.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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