Names and Depictions

What is the power of words of hate and prejudice? What are the meaning and impact of stereotyping images? Surely people could walk away without upset if the things they were called and the ways in which they were described by others were simply challenges to their self confidence. But this isn't so.

Sexual harassment would have little effect in a society in which rape was not prevalent. That's because, whatever the harasser does or does not intend to actually do, and whether or not he consciously considers what others might or might not actually do, his harassment serves as a veiled threat. It's a reminder of what he thinks is a woman's place and how many men agree with him. It functions as a warning of what violent things can be and have been done to keep women there or punish those who raise challenge to the idea that they are not fit for, worthy of, or welcome to have anything else.

A racial slur wouldn't mean so much in a culture with no history of lynching and no modern reports of things like a man being dragged by the neck from a car's back bumper until his head came off. A long line of real life tales of the gruesome goes a long way to make an incident of racially motivated name calling more than just a cruelty of the moment. The underlying statement is that those in power can and should control and abuse anyone they like and that they can make a person or a people cease to exist if they so desire.

Even a supposedly "nice" but generic image, repeated in endless variations, can serve to do nothing more or less than to dictate to a people who - and even whether or not - they are supposed to be. It doesn't "honor" them to disregard cultural variations amongst their nations, lock them into the larger culture's past, and deny their living members. It doesn't show they are valued to make emblems of their stereotyped image to display by people and in situations that are not a part of who they are. It doesn't demonstrate respect to disregard their reactions to these images and their use or to get offended if any of them complain. And it doesn't help to find some single individual who will claim not to care and make as though that were the only true and legitimate representative of the sentiments of all their people. It certainly does no good to refuse to deal directly with those who object.

Whether they are directed at a member of an established oppressed group or a single individual from within the same group as the abusers, words and images have power to injure when it's clear that the ones from whom they issue have the ability, whether alone or collectively or by way of someone for whom they're really serving as a kind of proxy, to step on or over their intended targets and those like them. Whether intentionally or not, those who use slurs, stereotypes, and seemingly empty threats in the same motivational vein are acting as the agents of those who do physical and psychological harm by acting out what the words and images only hint at. Not meaning to is irrelevant. The seemingly comparatively innocent or harmless activity is the everyday attempt at domination served up to those viewed as having no real rights and no actual humanity.

People can and do stand up to this kind of treatment, just as they stand up to assaults by those willing to deliver what they represent. But let's not pretend that the need for the targets of these abuses to be strong, courageous, and determined means a lack of need to put an end to such attacks. The cut they make is deeper than most like to admit, and it's time we were all honest about what those who engage in that kind of behavior are doing.



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