Monday, January 07, 2008

A Failure of Imagination

There's a liquor store in the area here called "Dirt Cheap Cigarettes & Beer." Classy name notwithstanding, they're pretty scuzzy; they don't even have a website or anything. They do run TV ads, though. I saw one on Comedy Central the other day, during a routine by Dave Chappelle. I was sitting next to my husband, and there were a few of his friends over to plan for a D&D session they were going to have (my husband is a bigger nerd than even I am), although mostly we were just sitting watching Dave, because he's such a fabulous comedian.

These ads were of the cheap, not-made-by-an-agency variety, with the store owner standing in front of a still picture of his store talking about the specials they had. Pretty unremarkable until it got to the ending slogan, "The More She Drinks, the Better You Look." As in, "shop at Dirt Cheap, because the more she drinks, the better you look!"

I was shocked. Now, I grew up in a fairly liberal area, and didn't watch television growing up, so maybe I was sheltered from some of this kind of thing. But on the other hand, I was a woman in the Army, and I've encountered a number of 'women belong in the kitchen or giving blow jobs' types, and even more 'all women are liars' types (many of whom, oddly enough, have been women). Anyway, naive or not, I was shocked. The idea that a company would choose to associate itself with rape, would choose to advocate rape as a way to convince people to buy its products, just shocks me.

The ad itself, however, didn't upset me as much as the reaction to the ad of the people I was with. Now, we were watching comedy, and sometimes when you've been laughing for an hour things that you wouldn't normally find funny make you laugh. So when the ad got to the punchline and everyone laughed, I said something; I don't remember exactly what I said, but it was probably something along the lines of a rather humorless "I hate those ads. It makes my skin crawl to know that people think advocating that kind of thing is acceptable."

The response I got was not what I expected. The guys I was with defended the slogan. "It just means she'll appreciate you for buying her such great liquor. You might as well say, The More He Drinks, the Better You Look. Its a trashy slogan but they mean it to be funny. The store is just saying alcohol lowers inhibitions." I pointed out that in fact if someone doesn't want to sleep with you, plying them with alcohol until they can't say no is rape. RAPE. And everyone turned to look at M, who is male, a binge drinker, and has a few nasty stories that I keep trying not to hear, and bust out laughing. "M, you're in trouble now!" they said. At first I didn't get it- why was it so funny to say that M is a rapist? And then he says, "You're right, you're right- I'm a rape victim. Poor me!"

All this leads me to develop a hypothesis: discrimination is a lot like physical pain in that it's very difficult to believe in. These guys aren't bad guys; with the exception of M, none of them would ever approve of an actual rape of anyone, ever, and I only exclude him because he binge drinks to the point of unconsciousness and that has a serious effect on your judgment (speaking of which, why do girls always get told not to drink lest some asshole take advantage of them, but boys are never told not to drink lest they become the asshole?). All four of these guys have always treated me with the utmost respect, and I believe that while they may assign me motives and inclinations based on my gender they really do consider me a real person. They don't think rape by alcohol is funny because they're evil, they think it's funny because it doesn't happen to them.

I don't mean that they think rape is OK as long as it happens to other people. I mean, when something doesn't affect you constantly, you don't really internalize the significance. It's the same way with pain. I am in constant physical pain; I am not able to let this completely slip my mind, ever, because I have to govern my movement so that I don't make it worse. However, I'm not always in excruciating, 'dowse me in gasoline and light me afire' pain; usually I just get a low, diffuse ache that flares up and down. When it's been awhile since I've pushed myself into real pain, I forget what it's like when my mind is overrun with agony. Once I forget, I start to disbelieve. I start to think, "pain isn't so bad. I should go for a walk. I should go to the grocery store. A neat band is coming to town, I should get tickets and go, it'll hurt but hurting isn't important."

My situation is unusual because as soon as I forget, my body reminds me. I forget what it's like to walk around the block, but then I do and I remember. However, when you don't get reminded on a regular basis, not only do you forget, but you start to disbelieve in the existence of pain that blocks rational thought with fire. Pain shrinks in your memory like everything else does, until it fits the lines your mind draws to make sense of your life. Agony doesn't make you mentally healthy, and so you stop believing in it. You can see this in doctors who refuse to prescribe certain pain medications, relatives who insist that an aversion to pain is actually laziness, disability systems that don't treat pain as disabling, physical therapists who insist that although they don't know why I'm in pain or how to treat it effectively, it's better that I be in pain than rely on assistive devices like a brace or a wheelchair. They aren't in pain; they don't believe in it, and they act accordingly.

I think that the mind treats discrimination the same way it treats pain: the experience is too awful to be borne, so it gets shut away. The memory is manipulated and bleached until it's bearable, and you end up not believing. This unfortunate feature of the brain, I think, is responsible not only for good men who laugh at rape jokes but also institutionalized injustice as it exists in our country today.


Elizabeth McClung said...

My home care worker and I talked this post over at great length - of the first part I was like, "That would make me uncomfortable" and she was, "Men are idiots, of course a commercial like that will exist."

I was: "Yes, but she was expressing how she felt and they made a joke about it."

She says: "That's because if there was a woman there, they would talk about it but men only know how to deal with emotions by turning it into a joke, so though they didn't intend to make the situation worse, they did because they thought if they joked it would be all over."

Me: grumble.....grumble.......

Her: "I'm not saying men can't be idiots"

Me: Too right!

For the second part, I find this like the "pregnancy memory" or "flu memory" - while women are giving birth, they seem pretty adament that nothing on God's green earth will cause this to happen again (labour for 32 hours!) - but next year it is all, "Oh, wouldn't another baby be nice?" - or like when you have the flu, you want to die, but when you don't you think people who have it are just "wimping out" - as you point out, it is hard enough to keep going up against your own mental brick wall: that bodies aren't supposed to hurt for no reason - and that is pretty frustrating and pretty easy to slip into denial mode. My guess is like people who have been sexually abused (they sometimes obsess over 'how much was my fault? How much was I 'asking for it?') - it hurts more but is harder to resist hearing from others what you sometimes even tell yourself, that this pain doesn't make sense, that it shouldn't be there, blah, blah.

I want to be there with you and we can take on those doctors together - pain sucks and eventually it creates a pit from which there is no perspective, only more pain - if you find a way to stop that pain and gain goals and perspective and joy then screw them! Take it in both hands! (assuming it isn't illegal in your state).

Tayi said...

Pregnancy memory is a perfect example of this inability to remember how horrible things are. In that case, I think it's a good thing, seeing how it keeps the human race having babies. Even in most other situations, I think a little distance, a little numbness can go a long way to a healthy view of life. I just wish people would realize what they're doing and take measures to counteract the effect when it comes to policies.

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