Most days, my morning starts with coffee.
Other days, it begins with finding myself being equated to a Nazi mass-murderer by some random online stranger, who happens to disagree with me about the need and function of public protest in any functioning democracy.
So, yeah. That.
I wondered, as I stared at my computer screen this morning: why am I the one in this exchange feeling trapped and tongue-tied? Why this stab of pain at witnessing the shameful barbarism of another human’s ill-informed—and ill-intended—imagination?
I have been trying to write about shame for days, y’see. The way it clots the throat. The way it steals intent and stillbirths action.
When functioning properly, shame polices the edges of propriety. It’s the tool our social herds use to cull those whose behavior transgresses the untransgressable. But often when we speak of it this way directly—“Have you no shame?”—we are merely evoking the presence of its absence, trying to summon the effects of a boundary on someone who has long since abandoned our thought-to-be-agreed-upon rules.
Shame is a double-edged knife, sharpened even through its hilt. It cuts in unpredictable directions, as often burying itself in the flesh of the sinned-against as in that of the sinner. More often, perhaps.
Still unsure what I’m getting at? Ask any rape survivor.
Ask if they felt shame.
Lexical Interlude 1
The word “cunt” is, according to some sources I’ve read, “perhaps the most offensive word in the English language.” I dunno ’bout that (seems to me, ****** can more than give **** a run for its money), but since I see no value in ranking dehumanizing racial slurs against dehumanizing gendered epithets, let’s just agree “cunt” is considered pretty damn bad, as far as derogatory language choices go. It hurts the ear.
It reduces the recipient to nothing but her sex, and then deems that sex garbage.
What function voice, words, stories.
What purpose targeted.
What meaning sculpted.
In a recent interview with poet/filmmaker/photographer Vivek Shraya, I came across these words: “art as a site of protest.” Shraya, a Canadian transdisciplinary, transgender writer and artist who “work[s] at the nexus of race, colonialism, gender, sexuality, violence, and history,” explains her commitment to presence in the world:
“I am always hesitant to call myself an activist, mostly out of respect for the activists who are using their bodies and voices to protest or activists online who are constantly engaging and educating others… That said, I do use art as a site of protest, particularly in relation to dominant narratives.”
Still resonating to her reasons for not claiming the title “activist” (I too hesitate, for similar reasons), a thought pops into my head, unbidden: I want to use shame as a site of protest.
To feel shame is to carry silence in your body like the swallowed sword of a circus performer; no movement in your core, no sound, not even a gulp of air for fear of slicing your guts to hamburger. But consider: when that lady in the spangled leotard at last pulls the broadsword from her gullet, she instantly becomes the most dangerously-armed badass under the big top.
What might it mean to ‘use shame as a site of protest’? What does ‘using shame’ mean to me as a writer, as a survivor, as one who nearly drowned in decades of my own shame and silence? I don’t yet have answers.
But I’m prepared to sit here in my cunning cunt cap and start to think it through.
Have you heard of the mythic hero Bellerophon? [Just go with me here. I’ll explain shortly.]
I mean: you’ve almost certainly heard of Bellerophon, even if you don’t realize it (he was the dude who rode Pegasus), but other than “oh yes, that winged horse probably had a rider at some point,” do you know the stories of Bellerophon? Do you know how this winged beast-riding, fire-breathing monster-slaying, beloved-of-the-gods-and-bearer-of-their-curses ancient hero was defeated at Lycia by a band of women and the fierce power of their collective crotches?
He attacked their city with a tidal wave, you see, after praying to his friend Poseidon for a favor—which seems to me dirty pool; how can mere mortals with spears combat a raging ocean as it towers over them, threatening to sweep away all life as they know it—and when the men’s pleas for mercy (“have you no shame??”) went unanswered, the women of Lycia marched out to confront him. And as they marched, they lifted their robes high: a phalanx of exposed pudenda defying fear, defying drowning, despising death.
And Bellerophon retreated, taking his tsunami with him.
[This is Plutarch’s version, fyi. In another telling, it is the women’s licentiousness that causes them to lift their skirts and this would-be god’s own purity and disgust that causes him to withdraw. Don’t you believe it.
When we of shamed bodies link arms and display our truths in straight-backed solidarity, when we return-to-sender the shame that has been put upon us? We become fearsome.
We become unstoppable.]
Lexical Interlude 2
The Latin word vagina (meaning “sheath, or scabbard”) is the root source for our present-day word vagina (meaning “pussy, or cunt”). Only over time did the warrior’s word bleed over to the mother’s body. But I reject any linguistic algorithm that would render me de facto deficient, my body mere housing for an absence that forever craves a phallic presence to fill and fulfill it.
No. If my body be deemed sheath, I’ll forge and carry my own weapon. Pull it from out my throat, as need arises.
Much sound and fury, of late, about what gets called “identity politics.” As if any politics can be separated from identity, as if “I believe” ever stands separate from “I am.” Those incensed by the idea of functional coalitions, rooted not in uniformity but in the centering of difference, would have you believe that common cause only thrives when mouths are stoppered. That we only functions when I, I, I gives way.
Make no mistake: those who rail loudest are arguing on behalf of a politics of shaming instead. They seek to split the world into those who would eat shame, and those who would (grinning) feed shame to us.
And, of course, the dead and the soon-to-be-dying.
But hush, they say, let us pass over in silence such a spectacle of gross and fleshy decay.
I am not the one who first made this body into a battlefield. But neither shall I be first to abandon the plain.
[I too can divide all people into two kinds. All depends, not on a red wheelbarrow, but on the answer to this riddle: How does one face humanity’s common destiny?]
The world is a huge, loud, overwhelming experience. Control is an illusion. Love is impermanent. We are all going to die.
Fight against these truths, and you become the very monster you once feared.
Or—you can soften. Make space. Let such truths break you open.
Crack your chest wide and hear the red, red beating of your most human heart. Now turn to a person beside you: can you hear the gentle thump, thump of their heart too?
Last night, I have a dream:
We are assembling on a beach. All of us together.
Assaulted bodies. Non-masculine bodies. Trans bodies. Black and brown bodies. Fat bodies. Queer bodies. Native bodies. Disabled bodies, and able bodies with disabled minds. Incarcerated bodies.
Sex workers. Refugees. Police victims. Food stamp recipients. Soldiers back from war. Soldiers still asked to make war. The raped, the abused, and the neglected.
An army of us gathering—robes lifted to our naked waists, throats wide open—and we are driving back tides into the ocean with the heat of our collectively-refused shame.
[Image of Sheela-na-gig at Kilpeck Church: By Nessy-Pic – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.]