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Fear and Loathing in Bristol

March 25, 2010

This is rather old news by now, but I’m only getting around to writing about it now–in part, because of the whole “working on emotional regulation” thing.

From the Bristol (VA/TN)* Herald Courier, February 28, 2010:

Blame the victim: Religious leaflet claims ‘ungodly’ dressed women provoke rape. The whole article is well worth reading, but here’s an extract:

Nineteen-year-old Keshia Canter handed three burgers, fries and milkshakes to a car-load of Tuesday afternoon customers at the Hi-Lo Burger’s drive-though window. A lady sitting in the backseat leaned forward, between the two men in front, and handed her a leaflet: “Women & Girls” it said across the top.

“Even though nothing is showing, you’re being ungodly,” Canter recalled the woman telling her. “You make men want to be sinful.”

My head just about exploded when I read that one. Not just on grounds of generally sickening rape culture awfulness, but because that behavior was so freaking culturally inappropriate on so many levels. Worse, it illustrates a frightening trend.

Maybe I really ought to come up with my own version of the Flava Flav Awards, over at Womanist Musings. This performance certainly deserves one. At least. Maybe in several different categories.

This struck me as wrong in so many ways, and (thank goodness!) must have had a similar effect on a lot of people around Bristol, with the kind of coverage it got. The rape culture stuff is pretty obvious, but it’s disconcertingly wrong otherwise. These aren’t in any particular order of wrongness, other than the order in which they occurred to me. A number of these points–if not all–apply equally well to the truly remarkable spread of Christian fundamentalism in the first place.

First, we’ve got the whole entitlement problem. Talk about the opposite of noninterference, which is still a major cultural value there. (I also talked about practical applications of this idea in Culture, how we view human difference, and abuse.) It takes a lot of gall to interfere with other people like that. Someone else’s religious beliefs (if any), their sexual orientation, their gender identity/presentation, how they prefer to dress, you name it–it’s none of your legitimate business. The presumed state of their soul is even less so.

Even if you don’t like their choice, as long as it’s not actually hurting anyone (by reasonable definitions of “hurting”, not the “gay panic” or “emasculating bitch” kind), you’d better keep it to yourself. Especially if you don’t want other people ripping into you. As Jefferson put it, from a little different perspective, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Proselytizing at all is bad form, and people are going to resent that even if you are not directly insulting them, as happened in this case.

That approach to life does kinda preclude the whole One True Way thing, before we even go any further.

Then we run up against the shocking misogyny, and specific disrespect of women, by another self-hating woman. That’s just so not on. Unfortunately, this illustrates the earlier Reversing the Damage posts well, along with observations on Erosion of political and economic power. Victim blaming has been creeping in, as mentioned in the article about this incident, and it’s a really disturbing trend. Ah, the yummy taste of imposed patriarchy.

As Amanda Hess covered very well in Rape Analogy Redux: The “Stroll In The Jungle” Theory, men are not like hungry bears. And people do tend to blame any bear who attacks a human, no matter what said human was doing. That is a very culturally inappropriate view. In spite of the imposed rape culture seeping in, most people still believe that men are responsible for their own behavior–and that the urge to rape and otherwise physically assault women (not to mention children) is not somehow “natural”. There is something wrong with you if you think that kind of behavior is OK (which also ties into noninterference). Men who do so are still widely considered to deserve whatever they get. A lot of victim blaming these days tends in the unfortunate direction of “you should have demanded/enforced respect”. I have experienced that one firsthand, and it is just one important (and neglected) consideration in providing culturally competent support for victims.

A lot of the cultural values Chief Hicks of the Texas Cherokee describes still apply (as quoted in an earlier post):

A man never raised his hand in anger to a woman for any reason. Death was the only acceptable punishment for a man who physically injured a woman. If a woman hit a man, he was either to stand or flee from the violence. A Tsalagi warrior could kill a woman warrior in combat, but no woman was to be molested or injured after the battle. There is no record in history of a Tsalagi warrior raping a woman. A Tsalagi warrior would kill his own father, brother, uncle or son before he would let him commit such a vile act. . .
No man would physically abuse a woman for any reason. To do so meant his death, either by her brothers or by the men in her clan. Her brothers belonged to her clan. If a woman became angered at her husband or any other man, he was to stand and take the beating without injuring her, only raising his hands in personal defense. If she was stronger or as strong as he, the man had better hope that he could out run her and stay out of her way until she cooled off.
Rape of any woman, in their own tribe or that of an enemy, meant a man’s death. There was no question asked, there was no repsonse given. It would be done.

Injured parties did the enforcing a lot, AFAICT, unless incapacitated; when male relatives did (and still do), it was not out of some weird patriarchial ownership interest. You can’t own other people in relationships, or otherwise, even now that we’re speaking English as a first language.

Now you’ll get in worse legal trouble for killing rapey or otherwise abusive men than the men would if ever convicted of their crimes (up to and including killing “their” women), but it still happens. Banishment–another previously popular option for dealing with people who have demonstrated they’re just not safe around other people, which Chief Hicks neglected–is trickier, too. Where are you going to send them, and how are you going to enforce this? If nothing else, with population density and prevailing social conditions the way they are, they will still be a danger to somebody. This is still mostly recognized as morally insane behavior, which counseling will not fix.

The misogyny itself is totally out of line. As Violet put it over at Reclusive Leftist, in A fair deal for every American:

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. What I want to talk about is this notion that feminism is some exotic thing, some intellectual latte that none of the rubes could possibly care about. Bullshit.

You know what feminism is? It’s fairness. It’s about giving women a fair deal. Every woman in this country wants that, and the only women who don’t think they deserve it are the brainwashed fundie hostages.

Look: I, too, know from RedneckLand. I come from crackers and hillbillies and trailer trash. My folks are the salt of the South: Scotch-Irish and Melungeons and Indians, all mixed together in the farm villages and mill towns of Appalachia and the piedmont. This is a culture where women work and have always worked. You wanna talk about strong women? I tell you what: there ain’t a woman in my family that doesn’t think she’s worth a fair shake and equal pay and some damn respect.

That’s feminism. That’s popular, grassroots, redneck, middle American feminism.

Word.

Women still have some reasonable expectation of respect. “The truth is that Women are treated in a much more respectful manner than in England & that they possess a very superior power”# The more things change…

Also, the way that woman with the horrible religious tracts handled the situation was disgustingly cowardly. Handing out hate literature** to avoid confronting people more directly–while ready to make a quick getaway in your car!–is not actually avoiding open conflict. It’s nastily passive-aggressive behavior. It sounded like that amazed the victim about as much as anything else about the incident. It would me.

Then there’s the whole sin thing, which still hasn’t caught on as well as some people hoped.

Just taking these cultural factors into account, you might get a better idea of why this incident left me so gobsmacked and simmering. And why the victim here was so upset about being treated that way.

Another big part of my irritation/frustration/disgust has to do with this kind of shit becoming more common as fundamentalist Christianity gets a stronger hold. Contrary to convenient stereotypes, Appalachia has historically had the lowest church membership rate of any region in the US. (I can’t find the reference right now, but it did not surprise me.) It is by no means part of the Bible Belt.***

A lot of my family is nominally Methodist, apparently thanks to 19th Century missionaries such as John Stewart.**** Since there’s not the same assimilative social pressure anymore, a lot aren’t even doing the nominal thing. (Before, most were so enthusiastic that they only grudgingly joined the church–and signed the pledge–after they got married. If ever.) There are also a lot of nominal Disciples of Christ, the first denomination to get going on American soil–in Appalachia–largely because the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians all seemed too pushy and authoritarian! They have never had a creed, and still don’t insist that people believe anything in particular. That is not an unusual pattern in the general area. It’s tended toward live and let live.

Enter the fundamentalists. I actually did a paper on this, way back when, connecting the explosion of small fundamentalist, frequently Pentecostal churches with worsening economic conditions. The old aggressively promising rewards later tactic seems to have taken off a little too well. In itself, that looks like a culturally inappropriate lure, given the traditional emphasis on the here and now, but it still worked. This movement may have started in the ’30s, but there still were not that many locally until the Religious Right really started gaining power and social influence.

Drawing from a post by Rednecromancer:

Here the producers do a masterful job of making the members of this religious sect look rational while being clear that most Appalachians do not practice or even condone this ritual. As a hillbilly it distresses me that West Virginia is the only state where snake handling is legal. And this is the point. Appalachia is full of little cinder clock churches. Billy Ray tells us that there are 80 different Baptist denominations alone. As one interviewee explains, if a group of folks doesn’t like what is being preached at their current church they will just up and build another little church down the road…

All of these little white washed churches stand in stark contrast to the suburban mega-churches in the rest of the country. I have sincere doubts as to whether any of those little churches fund political action committees. I would rather risk my life by handling a copperhead than risk my soul by shaking hands with the pastor of a mega-church.

I can’t help but think of Uncle Ted’s Church, which is the only name I ever heard it called. An elderly friend of the family’s real character of an even more elderly uncle (in his 90s) got sufficiently pissed off at the idea of somebody trying to tell him what to do that he left the church he’d been attending–and proceeded to build his own, on his own property. With him as the preacher. He apparently did most of the construction work by himself, other than what some younger neighbors and family jumped in to do so he wouldn’t hurt himself. He kept sole control of the keys to the building. Apparently, some other people did decide they wanted to go there, though that seemed to be optional to Uncle Ted’s plans. It has probably further splintered by now, with all 10 or so members.

Mostly, other people still tend to view them as fairly harmless oddballs, who have a right to be privately nutty as they want to be. And most of the longer-term fundamentalists are still OK with this, and fight the urge to go around loudly bemoaning the state of other people’s souls, there is still so much social pressure in this direction. Unfortunately, this is breaking down more and more, especially as less reasonably behaved people are attracted to fundamentalism and The New Vulgarity–which is not limited to religious nutters, by any means, but they sure have jumped on that particular wagon.

Still, there are not that many, and they don’t have nearly as much power as some would like. Unfortunately, the more vulgar ones are trying to make up for this by bugging the crap out of other people.

I’m 35. When I was growing up, I never once got harassed by anyone oh-so-concerned about the state of my soul. I don’t recall anyone even asking me about what kind of religious beliefs I might or might not have. (I did get invited to some Methodist church suppers and the like, but nobody was even trying to figure out if they might “need” to convert me! That was strictly social.) It just didn’t come up, even dealing with some of the non-local jackals who hassled me about almost everything else.

Not so for my younger cousin, who was born in ’89. She was absolutely shattered by one incident when she was 14 or 15, in which someone she’d considered a good friend and the friend’s mother held some kind of wacky intervention, out of concern for her soul. I think C. even considers herself some kind of Christian, but not the “right” kind, apparently. Being a kind and thoughtful person wasn’t enough, either. Her personal style and musical tastes are about as punk as mine were at the same age (these days, comfort is paramount!), and the friend’s mother decided her soul was in danger–and possibly also endangering her daughter’s. Seriously. That shit is inexcusable. She has apparently also been hassled by other kids at school, with religion used as an excuse.

Things changed a lot in 15 years or so. I still get shocked. And angry.

It’s not far from that kind of crap to forcing hate literature on people, unfortunately.

_____________

* Some background: Bristol straddles the Virginia/Tennessee line, right at Cherokee National Forest, “located in Eastern Tennessee and stretches from Chattanooga to Bristol along the North Carolina border”, which carries that name for a good reason. It’s just a little ways down the “Wilderness Road” (a.k.a. “Great Warrior Path”, a major ancient trade route) from where I grew up. What is now Bristol started out a fort built right on top of a Cherokee town site, with some really nasty history involved; notice who was really doing the scalping there, and that account only covers a very limited time frame.

They didn’t even bother to round up Cherokee in Virginia (not enough people to do it), and I’d imagine an awful lot of the folks on the Tennessee side evaded the Trail of Tears without having to go far, and temporarily. Not only are there still a lot of Cherokee people around, the Regional bias, and racism by association cultural stuff (not to mention Celtic Indians) applies there, too. That’s the cultural setting.

Again with the historical notes, but it’s nigh impossible to break through politically convenient stereotypes without digging through history. And sometimes it does take a lot of digging to get a reasonable picture of what really happened, to understand how it’s continuing to affect people.

** Then there’s the guy who was leaving white supremacist literature under rocks in a city park in Roanoke. In plastic baggies. Great distribution plan, buddy. *facepalm*

*** Still, “I’ve got a welt from the Bible Belt, dealing with the hand that I’ve been dealt”. Just couldn’t resist that very apt quote.🙂

**** As Barbara Mann points out in Iroquoian Women, he had an easier time of things because most Nations had an across-the-board policy of taking in any Black people who needed somewhere to go. People humored him more than they might have otherwise; no wonder he behaved so oddly and inappropriately, considering the kind of life he’d probably led! This encouraged more similar Methodist missionaries. Stewart recruited more, and sent them out to other places. This helped explain why a lot of the Ohio drainage broke out in Methodist churches.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 25, 2010 8:48 pm

    Great analysis. I totally agree this is inappropriate, disrespectful, misogynist and a host of other negative adjectives.

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