Monday, February 6, 2017

Keepin’ it Light with Jokes about Domestic Homicide: “Sorry if you’re offended!"

Two weeks ago, the Statesman Journal reported on remarks from Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron at the SAIF Agri-Business Banquet at the Salem Convention center, an annual event that celebrates the impact of the local agricultural community.  Read the full article here.  During some of his remarks as emcee, Commissioner Cameron decided to tell the following joke, repeated here as printed in the Statesman:

During the banquet, Cameron said he heard a story when he was younger in rural Sams Valley in Jackson County.
By his recollection, the story is about a recently married farmer and his wife who are riding in a buggy drawn by a team of horses.
“The lead horse was a real old horse,” Cameron said, setting up the story. “That lead horse stumbled. And the farmer said, ‘That’s once.’ ”
The horse, whom Cameron said was apparently named Gertrude, stumbles again farther down the road. “And he said, ‘Gertrude, that’s twice.’ ”
The horse later stumbles a third time. The farmer grabs a shotgun and shoots the horse.
“The farmer didn’t say anything,” Cameron said. “The new bride turned to him, yelling at him, (sic) said, ‘That’s an awful thing! Why did you do that?’ ”
Cameron concluded: the farmer “turned to her and said, ‘That’s once.’ ”
According to the article, after telling the story, Cameron turned to his wife and jested that clearly he would never say such a thing to her in reality, as she would respond “you’re done.”  This detail is important.  The commissioner appears to understand that, in reality, such a threat between married persons would be intolerable.  However, he jokes that if he “made” a statement like that, his wife would immediately act as the gatekeeper of propriety and actively ensure her own safety by leaving him.  Putting that onus on her, even in this odd little quip, reveals a darker subtext of the grave misunderstandings many folks have regarding the dynamics of domestic violence: that it’s up to women to regulate and escape the “natural” and unavoidable violent tendencies of men, that women are responsible for making sure they don’t get murdered, that men can’t help themselves, and, that this fictitious story is somehow completely separate from the lived realities of people, not an active, performative creator of those realities in which we live. 

After the event, this moment received criticism from a few sources, including attendees, a city council member who Cameron beat out for his current commission seat, and Jayne Downing, the executive director of Salem’s organization in support of people experiencing domestic violence – the Center for Hope and Safety.  Downing stated that everyday language use – including ‘jokes’ – normalizes interpersonal violence in harmful ways. 

Several days after the evening in question, Cameron defended his remarks, clarifying that he was joking, that it was just a story and not something that had ever happened, that he was just trying to keep the evening fun and light.  And, most importantly, that he was “sorry if he had offended anybody.”  Centering the idea of "offending" someone highlights a fundamental misunderstanding of the complaint and the actual problem.  
While we’re currently living in a nightmarish cycle of increasingly horrifying threats to democracy, autonomy, and general soundness of nation, it’s hard to regulate levels of continued outrage.  It might seem difficult to even attempt to worry about something so small as a Marion County Commissioner’s distasteful, folksy tale at a two-weeks-past farmer party in Salem, Oregon.  But while I can agree that we have “bigger” crises afoot, and while I commend Jayne Downing’s powerful, thoughtful critique, this story stuck with me. 

As the SJ article noted, Oregon has comparatively high levels of domestic violence and sexual assault, showing increases of reported cases over the past several years that outpace even the striking national averages.  It’s also oddly relevant that the Commissioner’s story was reportedly heard previously in Jackson County, the southern Oregon County neighboring, and formerly a part of, Josephine County.  In 2012, Josephine County became briefly well-known after losing federal timber subsidies that had funded the county infrastructure for decades. Grants Pass and the surrounding areas were left with massive budget deficits that they had failed to plan for, despite knowing for years that the federal money would eventually cease.

Sheriff Gil Gilbertson was forced to fire 23 deputies and cut police hours to between 8am and 4 pm.  He issued a statement suggesting domestic violence victims move to another county with available resources.  Other officials suggested they buy guns, hide, move, or obtain the support of quickly forming vigilante militias.  A month after Gilbertson’s statement was released, police were unable to help a woman calling about her abusive ex-boyfriend attempting to break into her house.  She was raped and assaulted when the county and state police all failed to provide her protection, and suggested she ask her assailant to leave.  In 2015, Domestic and Sexual Assault support organizations reported 3,797 calls from Josephine County, a county with a total population of 82,815.  I note this recent history to clarify that domestic violence in rural Oregon isn’t a bygone fairytale of pioneer days that’s funny to joke about.  It’s a persistent, growing, and gendered issue that threatens the lives of Oregonian women. 

It’s easy to be labelled a “politically-correct” “whiner” and “feminazi” for being bothered when men joke callously about murdering their wives.   It’s just a joke, right?  But as Jayne Downing pointed out, it’s simply not that simple.  We don’t only encourage domestic violence in our communities with passive tolerance and feigned ignorance.  We repeatedly insist that it’s not real, it doesn’t matter, and that women are silly liars in our cultural references to traditional community myths and history.  And we continue to insist that there’s no connection whatsoever to the violent literature of the building of the American west that is rife with tales of gendered domestic homicide – murder ballads, frontier novels, jokes – and the immediate series of comments on any contemporary article describing a woman who has been murdered by her husband: “Why didn’t she leave?”  “Why was she with him in the first place?” “it’s her own fault.”   There is a connection to the common cultural references we share and the violences we decide to classify as violence or tolerate as legitimate exercises of power. 

That distinction is at the heart of our current struggles against a state that is casually articulating massive campaigns of dehumanization in order to legitimize violence against certain types of bodies and threats to their personhood and autonomy.  So while the commissioner might be attempting to make peace by suggesting that if his remarks “offended” anyone he’s willing to apologize, he’s more accurately rolling his eyes at women and people who have experienced violence and the women who try and protect, support, and fight for them.   But the problem isn’t that we’re “offended” by these words, or that we’re sad and afraid that the words themselves will hurt us.  The actual reason that words like these are a problem is not because we are weak, trembling babies, but that we recognize that language is productive.  And while we loathe the world of violence that language shapes, we also understand that language is at the crux of our ability to change. 

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