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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Hierarchy of Identity: On Orlando, America, and the Way We Treat Other People

I would like to start this piece by offering condolences to the victims of this attack as well as their families and loved ones. In the political furor that inevitably surrounds these tragedies, far too often the victims are overlooked, and I would not want to be guilty of the same. You can donate to support them and their families here.

As everyone is well aware of by now, forty-nine innocent people lost their lives last Sunday night and dozens more suffered injuries when a shooter (whose name I will deliberately refrain from using throughout this piece) attacked an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Orlando. This horrific event joined a long, ever-increasing list of mass acts of violence and murder in the United States, a list that has grown at a faster and faster rate over the past few years. The usual reaction patterns from media, public figures, and the general populace began once again, to the point of predictability. There have been so many mass shootings recently that even pointing out the clichés in people's reactions to them has itself become a cliché.

The biggest question people ask in the wake of these types of events is infallibly, "why?" What you'll likely find is a glut of nuance-free, cookie-cutter answers that seem to tie everything in a nice little bow. This is somewhat understandable: violence like this is so terrifying and illogical that it's easier and more comforting to blame the issue on guns, mental health, or religious fundamentalism and call it a day. But if we fail to both thoroughly examine the roots of these events and then do everything in our power to fix the problems, it is a disservice to the victims of past mass killings and as well as the victims of future ones that we will have done nothing to prevent.

In the response to Orlando, the two main motivations suggested by the media and public have been homophobia and jihadist terrorism. Something of a debate between those who align with one view or the other has erupted to the point where the discussion online and in the political realm - as it often does on both fronts - has shifted towards each camp attempting to prove themselves right and away from trying to actually stop this from happening ever again. In addition to prioritizing personal egos over the actual victims of this massacre, this debate sets up a false binary that leaves no room for middle ground (which is where the FBI officially falls) and effectively shuts down any discussion that goes more in-depth beyond how to label this attack. In other words, it does nothing to fix the problem, only to identify it.

What's been largely ignored in the post-Orlando discourse, as it has in so many other cases, is the base of the entire issue. Whether you think the shooter was motivated by religious beliefs or homophobia, the two both emerge from the same idea: that there are "right" and "wrong" ways to exist as a human being in terms of identity, and that you can be "better" than someone else, especially because of your identity. This shooter, for whatever reason, held a grudge against the people inside that nightclub, to the point where he felt justified in shooting over one hundred of them. Clearly, he specifically targeted a place where a large number of LGBTQ+ people would be - meaning he had determined they were in some way more deserving of death. He was full of hatred for LGBTQ+ people, and we as a society are at least somewhat complicit in allowing that hatred to flourish.

We know the shooter had visited the club about a dozen times before and was on gay dating apps, and so it is safe to assume he probably felt some sort of internal conflict about his own sexuality. What I wish to deconstruct here is the very idea that this would be a conflict at all - that is, that there would be any reason for him to feel negative about himself due to his sexual identity. Without homophobia and heteronormativity, when we finally step up and recognize all sexual orientations as equal, there will be no reason for people - including this shooter - to fear their own sexuality. But because we continue to reinforce the idea that being heterosexual is the "right" and "normal" way to be, we also continue insist that anything else is somehow deviant and negative, and place those feelings upon those who identify as non-heterosexual.

This line of thinking pervades our culture in far too many ways, whether it comes to gender or race or religion. In America we explicitly and inherently praise certain demographics while disparaging others for completely arbitrary reasons. It's this hierarchy of identity that lends itself to perversion into acts of violence and discrimination. It's the same disgusting sense of superiority that made Dylann Roof feel justified in killing nine black church-goers; it's the same concept that fueled Elliot Rodger's murderous misogyny; it's the same hatred that told Wade Michael Page he could kill six Sikh people at a temple in Wisconsin. (I feel regret about having to mention their names, but feel it is important to do so as to signify the examples I'm using to demonstrate my point.) We can pin these attacks and others like them on mental health issues, but mental health alone doesn't result in random acts of mass killing; it may heavily distort reality, but there has to be some sort of impetus in the first place, and that impetus is our country's pecking order of identity categories.

We, as a nation, need to change the rhetoric we used when we talk about people. Because that's just what they are: people. As of now, we continue to objectify individuals based on what they are, when we must begin to focus on who they are; otherwise, we rob them of their personhood and reduce the entire population into numbers and categories fixed on a totem pole of supremacy and oppression.

Of course, I am not suggesting this would put an end to all mass shootings, as not all attacks are rooted in these motivations and even those that are can never fully be escaped. But if we work hard at permanently adopting a new philosophy on how we think of people and how we treat and emphasis the various facets of identity, it may help reduce these types of attacks, and will undoubtedly make this nation a better place for everyone in the process.

We cannot allow this attack to slowly fade from memory, as we have allowed so many others to do. We cannot sit back and take no action and then act shocked when it all happens again. We may have a Congress that is unwilling to act, but social discourse is completely within our control. It's up to us to try and do something with it.

RIP

Stanley Almodovar III, 23
Amanda Alvear, 25
Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21
Martin Benitez Torres, 33
Antonio D. Brown, 29
Darryl R. Burt II, 29
Jonathan A. Camuy Vega, 24
Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28
Simon A. Carrillo Fernandez, 31
Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25
Luis D. Conde, 39
Cory J. Connell, 21
Tevin E. Crosby, 25
Franky J. Dejesus Velazquez, 50
Deonka D. Drayton, 32
Mercedez M. Flores, 26
Juan R. Guerrero, 22
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22
Paul T. Henry, 41
Frank Hernandez, 27
Miguel A. Honorato, 30
Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40
Jason B. Josaphat, 19
Eddie J. Justice, 30
Anthony L. Laureano Disla, 25
Christopher A. Leinonen, 32
Brenda L. Marquez McCool, 49
Jean C. Mendez Perez, 35
Akyra Monet Murray, 18
Kimberly Morris, 37
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27
Luis O. Ocasio-Capo, 20
Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25
Eric I. Ortiz-Rivera, 36
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32
Enrique L. Rios Jr., 25
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37
Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24
Christopher J. Sanfeliz, 24
Xavier E. Serrano Rosado, 35
Gilberto R. Silva Menendez, 25
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34
Shane E. Tomlinson, 33
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25
Luis S. Vielma, 22
Luis D. Wilson-Leon, 37
Jerald A. Wright, 31

1 comment:

  1. Interesting and thoughtful piece. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete