Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Offence isn’t the point. (On Roast Busting and Non-Apologies.)

Thanks to Willie Jackson and John Tamihere, we have a broader context for understanding the young men at the heart of Roast Busters.

For the past few years, it turns out, a group of young men in Auckland calling themselves ‘Roast Busters’ have preyed on girls and teenagers, raped and sexually assaulted them, and bragged about their activities on a facebook site. Some of the women were plied with alcohol and approached at parties and other social events. The story has blown up in NZ, and at first there were at least two groups of people to be angry with: the young men who have carried on with their crimes for years; and NZ police who have known about their crimes for years but wouldn’t prosecute because they didn’t feel they had enough evidence. I am sure many women in NZ are not surprised, on the basis of our own encounters (on behalf of ourselves or others)  with NZ police about other instances of rape and sexual assault, that the police response was underwhelming to a mind-numbing and infuriating degree.

I wish I was more surprised by the police situation, to be honest, but many of us are already familiar with the problem of their appalling treatment of such cases (over the phone, when reporting on an incident: ‘but are you sure she said no? why would she have a shower when that has probably removed any evidence? are you sure she said no?’) and general reluctance to prosecute which rests on the blatant unfairness that a traumatized victim needs to be willing to come forward (unlike for example when a television is stolen and the police step in and prosecute on behalf of the television despite the TV not having provided its own affidavit) even though there is no guarantee the re-traumatization involved in coming forward and repeating statements will be enough anyway.

Over the past 24 hours, two radio talkshow hosts (the aforementioned Willie and John) have stepped forward and volunteered themselves to be the third target of national anger about this whole situation. They ‘interviewed’ Amy, an 18 year old young woman who had been victim of the young men and – as many other commentators have already noted – proceeded to reinforce the usual sexist framing of such a topic: her clothes, her consumption of alcohol, her virginity and whether teenaged girls are promiscuous these days. They proposed that if some girls had consented then it wasn’t really rape. Etc. Awful. Beyond words.

This display of characteristic sexism on the part of these two middle aged men who pride themselves on being ‘straight talkers’ etc etc yawn yawn attracts enough attention that they are drawn into a national discussion of whether an apology is necessary. The next day, Willie Jackson apologises, kind of. He says “we have no problems apologising to Amy for causing offence.” 

And here’s the question: is this the apology demanded under these circumstances? Is offence the problem here? Or, to put it another way, if Amy wasn’t “ofen[ded]” would it have been okay?

The idea of offence, and apologies offered for causing it, make me wonder.

In another context, when we have small children, and they do something bad to another child, we say ‘apologise!’ and we expect that the child will say ‘I’m sorry for breaking your toy,’ not ‘I’m sorry if breaking your toy might have made you upset.” In the moment, we can see the cause and effect, and the central point of the interaction is not the upset, it’s the breakage. Both children, and all adults standing around them, can see the relationship has been ruptured because the first child broke the toy, not because the other child cried. The crying – the upset – of the second kid is neither here nor there in terms of the relationship between the kids; it’s a by-product, not the problem.

But somehow once people become grownups, it becomes acceptable to place a little breathing room in an apology: I’m sorry if I offended you. I’m sorry if you are offended when I dress up in a parody of your culture for Halloween. I’m sorry if you’re offended that I said people from your community are all stupid. I’m sorry if my African themed 21st party to which friends came dressed in blackface and a KKK costume offended you. I’m sorry if my comment that you’re ugly has offended you. I didn’t mean to offend you when I suggested you sounded like a slutty teenager and probably asked for it.

This kind of apology isn’t an apology because it refuses to focus on the actual site of the rupture; it attempts to deflect attention, suggesting the victim’s response is unpredictable and arbitrary, and locating the problem with the response rather than the thing to which the victim is responding. It turns an actual act or comment into a neutral entity, and places all of the emotion – and all of the responsibility for emotion – on the side of the victim. Once the emotion quietly slides to the victim end of the equation, so too does the central weight of the issue. Focusing on the response of the victim means the possible effects of the original act are rendered unknowable and therefore, because this opens up the possibility of alternative responses, the original actor is rendered potentially innocent at least because it is conceivable a ‘non-offended’ response is also possible.

(‘I’m sorry you’re offended I dressed like an Indian for Halloween.’ ‘Oh I’m not offended.’ ‘Oh great I’ve got nothing to be sorry for then – glad we cleared that up.’)

Apologizing for causing someone else’s offence is facetious because it cannot ever be truly genuine: how can one genuinely apologize – and by that I mean reflectively and absolutely take responsibility for their own wrong actions – when one suggests that the rupture in the relationship between the two people is only knowable through the outward sign of a specific response of offence? Surely taking responsibility for one’s own wrong actions necessarily involves taking the time to thoroughly consider all of the possible implications and effects and take responsibility for these as well.

(‘I’m sorry I dressed like an Indian for Halloween. I have participated in a specific form of stereotyping which has deep colonial roots and dehumanizes your people, and I can see that this thoughtless act contributes in real ways to the ongoing injustice and violence inflicted on Indigenous people.’)

Apologising for offence caused rather than for your actual behaviour renders the person making the apology incapable of repairing the relationship because the rupture is located at the end of the victim, and presumably one cannot 'make' someone feel different. Apologising for offence caused rather than for your actual behaviour is a refusal to take responsibility for your own actions and a refusal to do anything further to repair the relationship (which surely is the best possible outcome of an apology). 

[For clarity: I'm talking here about taking responsibility in a collective, relationship-focussed, sense rather than an individualistic right wing sense.]

This – this - is at the heart of the non-apology to Amy (“we have no problems apologising to Amy for causing offence”) – as if causing a specific reaction is the problem rather than their words to which she may or may not be reacting. This pattern of thinking ultimately denies there can be clarity about right and wrong, cause and effect, of the original behaviour… and it does this by leaving open the possibility that there is an plausible alternative understanding of the interaction, in which the victim does not feel aggrieved. If Amy did not feel offence – unlikely, but theoretically plausible seeing as offence is an individual emotion – they had nothing else for which to apologize.

And this – this – is at the heart of what’s wrong with how Willie and John – and some members of the NZ police force and many more - gently perpetuate rape culture. The idea that the perpetrator’s guilt depends not on the act of rape in and of itself but on the specific and provable response of the victim. According to this pervasive logic, there is always the possibility not only that Amy won’t be offended but that Amy wasn’t raped. 

If men like Willie and John took full and serious and thoughtful responsibility for their own actions ('we apologise for...'),  perhaps men like those behind Roast Busters might grow up seeing models for how they can take full and serious and thoughtful responsibility for theirs. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Shine bright like a moko: the history of Rihanna’s tattoo

This is the story about a young woman of African origins from Barbados, a former English colony in the Caribbean (although Spain and Portugal claimed it at earlier points too) from which Indigenous people have been, if not exterminated, incorporated and made invisible. While in Aotearoa she received a tattoo on her hand that was done traditionally (tapping, not buzzing) by a Māori artist in the aesthetic form of a design he learned from a Samoan master tattoo cultural practitioner. While Pacific people in Aotearoa, the Pacific region and beyond debated whether it was a malu, moko, kiri tuhi or plain old tattoo, Rihanna decided she didn’t ‘love, love’ the tattoo anyway and flew a white tattoo artist to the Dominican Republic to rework it into a new tattoo which allegedly draws its inspiration from the designs of henna.

You’ve got to hand it to her: the landscape of a single human hand

This is, at its heart, the story of a single human hand; it is also, in its full breadth, the story of race, colonialism, empire, gender and indigeneity. In its full depth, however, this is the story of the fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. Rihanna’s hand is now a landscape; literally it is a contested place, but also metaphorically it is the place where imperial histories play themselves out. She is not the first black woman whose body bears the traces of histories of violence and appropriation; she is not the first woman of African descent whose body is held up for close inspection by ‘the world.’ Her hand is a landscape in the way that Indigenous people know landscapes; it belongs to someone who has known it as long as it has existed, and while for some people it now represents a resource to be exploited, for others it is a result and continuation of complicated and important family histories.

We often talk in literary studies about the palimpsest; a piece of paper used over and over again so that when you read the latest text applied to its surface, you can’t help but be aware of – and even distracted by – the other texts that have existed underneath. The palimpsest I encounter most often in my day to day life is the shopping list scrawled on a piece of paper that turns out (upon closer inspection, while pushing a trolley around the supermarket) to be a bill, a letter or an interesting clipping. We are capable of reading one text for its meaning (I need tomatoes and shampoo) at the same time as we consider the literal meaning of other texts underneath (did I pay this bill?) as well as the histories of those texts (oops this is an article a student asked me to read), Palimpsests are actual things, because of the historical scarcity of paper or other such materials, but the palimpsest is also a rich metaphor.

We talk now about places as palimpsests: the impossibility of engaging with any one account of history (either a story about history or its material proof) without noticing – even being distracted by – the many layers of history underneath. Rihanna’s hand is a palimpsest because it is a surface on which has been layered many stories: a tattoo, another tattoo. However, each of those stories is itself another story. The first tattoo is wrapped up in a story of Māori and Samoan cultural revitalization, specifically in the area of applying ink to the body, and the involvement of another Māori person, a musical artist. This story is wrapped up in other stories, each of which is densely packed with still more stories: why revitalization was necessary (Christianity and the outlawing of tattoos in the Pacific, national and regional interruptions in cultural practice as a result of a long history of Europeans understanding Pacific people as savages), how questions about tattooing women have been negotiated in the past few decades (the range of understandings about gender and the tattoo, from a Samoan story about twins who swam from Fiji, to young Polynesian feminists in 1970s Auckland, and beyond), and why Māori and Samoan people would have such a close relationship in the first place (NZ’s colonial history in Sāmoa through overt as well as economic imperialism). Still more stories. And more. And more.  

She found culture in a hopeless place

The tattoos (malu? tatau? moko? kiri tuhi?) applied to her hand in Aotearoa piqued our collective interest not because of the aesthetic dimension of the design but because of these stories. The history of Indigenous Pacific control over our own cultural practices, including practiced of tattooing and other body arts, is so complicated that we have inevitably over-reacted to Rihanna’s hand. We responded to her decision to acquire the tattoo, and we responded to her decision to (attempt to) cover it up. Such an over-reaction is understandable, though, because her decision to acquire such a tattoo in such a context brings up a rollercoaster of emotions: pride, jealousy, defensiveness, anger and shame. Because so much has been taken, because cultural integrity and cultural proximity are still such flimsy things in 2013 in our region, and because of Rihanna’s sheer fame, we respond to the situation in ways that are important. We believe we are reacting rather than over-reacting because the weight of past and ongoing injustices and appropriations, weighing heavily as they do on ourselves and also on our descendants, justifies our response.

This is not really about Rihanna’s hand - what power could the small hand of a single Barbadian woman really have over us? – but it is about the many layers of history we cannot help but see when we look at her skin. And, as we ‘read’ each text, more texts become apparent: her African skin bearing the marks of Caribbean diaspora, the tattoo applied in Aotearoa, and finally a design applied in another (American-occupied, Spanish-speaking) part of the Caribbean which is apparently intended to look like the henna design which has its roots in the Indian subcontinent. Of course, the movement of ‘henna design’ from its home to the Caribbean comes through (at least) two pathways: historical movement of Indian people through the British system of indentured labor (which also brought Indian people to Fiji) to plantations in the Caribbean; and contemporary appropriation of specific Indian cultural (and food) items in hegemonic American popular culture (bindis, butter chicken, henna, and so on) which are both removed from the inconvenient truth of India’s geographic and cultural proximity to states deemed by the US as questionable in relation to terrorist activities, but also quietly pick up on a long history of what Said called ‘Orientalism’ back in the late 70s.

On some level, the conscious decision made by Rihanna to cover the prior ‘Pacific’ tattoo with a henna-inspired tattoo seems less significant here than the point that there is a longstanding link between India and the Caribbean, and the circulation of specific Indigenous cultural forms in the context of European (and American) imperialism. Am I claiming that Rihanna has no agency, that she has no choice, that she is powerless in the face of the broad sweep and devastating waves of colonialism? Do I see her as a thoughtless pawn in someone else’s game? Am I replicating the history of non-African people treating African people as if they have the intellectual capacity of children? Is it not okay to expect more from ‘our own’ – to expect that a person who is rather more from the victim rather than victor part of the colonial story would use her considerable position of power in order to make visible the plight of other victims, or at least not replicate the same old systems of cultural appropriation?  

Shine bright like a moko: a tattoo, a beloved grandchild.

This isn’t only about Rihanna - this is about us. We have all participated in viewing Rihanna’s hand as if it had been removed from the rest of her body, because this is how the photographs have been distributed in corporate and social media. Peering at the layers of ink, we find ourselves trying to separate overlapping patterns rather than asking the question about the rest of the body to which the hand is attached. Each time we do this, we normalize the chopping up of black women’s bodies. We like to think we are outraged by the unauthorized removal of body parts from Indigenous bodies for medical research but we are happy to visually detach a body part for the purpose of arguments about cultural integrity. It is awkward to realize that we have no problem treating Rihanna’s body the way Chris Brown did just before those famous photographs: as something to project our own violence upon; as something less valuable than us. Even as we stare at the photographs of her hand, making important arguments about the importance of cultural wholeness and continuity, we sidestep the rather awkward situation in which the ink on her hand means more to us than the blood that flows in and out from the heart which is located somewhere out of the view of the camera. We have chosen our holy liquid: ink is more important to us than blood.

Of course, in the Māori language we have a little pun on the word ‘moko’ – as well as meaning ‘tattoo’ it is widely used as a shortened form of ‘mokopuna,’ or grandchild. Rihanna is a descendent of her own family tree, a family tree that includes a number of branches. We all are. Surely our ancestors not only want us to be alive but they also want us to be well: physically, emotionally, spiritually, culturally well. I was angry with Rihanna when I started writing this, but now I feel aroha for her. I wish her all the best. I hope one day she finds a way to shine bright like a moko of her own ancestors, rather than looking for who she is in a palimpsest of other peoples’ moko stretched across the skin of her hand.