Monday, January 11, 2021

What Keeps Him Silent...Until He's Not? What Keeps Her Silent...Until She's Not?

Enjoying an hour-long walk in the sunshine yesterday, I found myself remembering the final scenes in a 1992 movie, A Few Good Men, with Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Pollack, Kevin Bacon, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Keifer Sutherland, J.T. Walsh, and of course, Jack Nicholson. Then this morning, I was drawn back to a comedian from ‘down under,’ Hannah Gadsby, whose show Nanette emerged a couple years ago via a good run in local shows in Australia, then globally--or at least into the USA urban scenes--when NetFlix picked it up. Both have the seed of something I’m been feeling, so I’m relying on these words to bear witness to it. My invitation to you is to treat each ‘story’ or ‘orator’ as a part of your own self...feel for yourself the binds felt and broken... Yes, underneath this are our worry-stones of 'free speech,' 'accountability,' and more... I'm interested in the questions of what holds us back from speaking freely and what do we allow to break those barriers?

In one sense, each main orator in focus sits within a frame of reference that predetermines how something public should be said--a court room for Colonel Jessup, a comedy stage for the Hannah Gadsby. Each has its norms, its expectations for those observing and listening to the one speaking. Each orator in focus also winds up transgressing the expectations or norms assumed. Each framework or setting holds the transgression convincingly (in my view), though the transgression also changes the scene, the actual story, the awareness of hidden stories finally coming out. I find myself feeling into how each ‘video-text’ is an instance of someone holding back what s/he “is not supposed to say,” until the barrier breaks...until the words simply have to come out. To hell with the consequences. ...or... Please, let there be no consequences?

Let’s start with A Few Good Men… I won’t recap too much of the whole plot here, but if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to watch this clip (6:24 mins) of the final scene I mean here. It’s a drama that would never happen in an actual courtroom--too much dramatic license taken for actually believable court proceedings. But it is a beautiful and daring scene of a class-clown, white-father’s-boy lawyer (Tom Cruise) litigating a case in which a high-level witness is called to the courtroom, a base-commander Colonel in the Marines down in Guantanamo (Jack Nicholson). The smart-alecky, entitled JAG Corps lawyer is egging on this white-male-lion of the Marines to say in a courtroom what he’s tired of hiding and really wants to say. Say in a courtroom proceeding for which he displays disdain, for the inconvenience of it all. Some part of Jessup knows that an order he gave was against the regulations in the Armed Forces, but another part of him doesn’t agree with the regulation anyway. He ultimately doesn’t feel bound by it, knowing he can probably get away with disregarding it in his remove, near Cuba.

THIS is what interests me about the clip this morning--a white man hiding something he no longer wants to hide, for the inconvenience of it all, and finally saying what he fuckin’ wants to say. Colonel Jessup had given two contradictory orders--a public one, to not discipline a sub-par soldier, and a private one to a high-level officer, to ‘give a Code Red,’ a physically violent trashing of the soldier “to insure his quality of soldiering would improve.” By the very act of two orders, Jessup knew he was disregarding a national regulation while simultaneously doing what he wanted to do in his military occupation. When the soldier actually died, the cover-up begins, as do the legal processes of accountability from Washington. The drama is then about getting Colonel Jessup to say in a court of law what he knows to be true, is pissed off he has to hide, and thinks was right anyway.

What does it take for white men who are weary of having to hide something about themselves to finally say what they want to say, out loud, in defiance, seduced by the probability that there won’t be consequences?

Then I was reminded of Hannah Gadsby from a couple summers ago, her show Nanette. (If you have NetFlix, that’s how I access it; the trailer can be seen here.) These are not comparable media-events, to be clear, but for me, they share a seed I’m trying to learn more about in our current settings: struggling with how to say aloud what we’re “not supposed to say”, but finding ways to say it anyway.

Gadsby’s voice comes from a social location “on the margins,” she would say. A lesbian comic from Tasmania (the island off of Australia), she begins her show in much the way any audience would expect her to--some gentle gay humor, some pot-shots at homophobia, some ‘coming out’ stories that would be familiar fodder with such a comic. Her artistry is simply stunning as slowly, ever so slowly, she invites her audiences into an experience of what she is going to say, not just the words or thinking about it. The best public speaking does that, after all. It gives you an experience of ‘the point,’ not an intellectual lesson. But ultimately, she creates a comedic-dramatic container in which she finally gets to say aloud what she has needed to say, but had been forced to hide, for decades. What she has to say? More below... My questions, however, are...

What keeps each orator in these two video-texts silent for so long, then, and what finally breaks open the barrier so the speech can come pouring out?

Colonel Jessup holds his tongue within the necessary norms and expectations, until he doesn’t. What seems to hold him is the choreographed dance of a courtroom in which public speech is honored, truth is sought, and justice is hoped to prevail. Jessup has a veneer of civility, even hope for the two Marines to be spared court-martial for their actions. What doesn’t break the barrier, however, is contributing from his own story/role to the hoped-for justice for the two Marines who were given an order and would have been severely punished for disobeying it. They were collateral damage, in his mind. Some assumptions of public discourse, the heightened awareness of the court, his need to ‘color within these lines’ to keep his status...all this kept things in check for him. Until they didn’t…

What finally broke open the barrier was the smark-alecky, entitled young lawyer who had never served any time in the military. In the scene, he provokes Jessup, disdaining him, keeping calm focus on the ‘two orders,’ the evidence that would finally prove Jessup’s orders are always followed, that he had ordered the illegal Code Red. In classic Aaron Sorkin drama, the tension becomes simply too much for Jessup, who is sick and tired of having to hide all the protection he offers, and the means he sees fit with which to offer it. “I would rather you just said thank you,” he sneers at one point. He’s a militant white man who is tired of having to hide who he is, who therefore insists on saying whatever he fuckin wants to say, assured there will be no consequences in the courtroom. 

Except in this Hollywood courtroom (filmed in Culver City, most likely), there were consequences. The whole courtroom hushed as Tom Cruise’s character immediately moves for an action to tend to Colonel Jessup and the ensuing federal prosecution of him. “The witness has rights,” he says, as the scene concludes. Kevin Bacon, playing the prosecuting attorney, sits down in disbelief that Jessup confessed to the crime. The consequences are beyond the film’s ending, but they begin with “the witness has rights.” There is a system in place to adjudicate criminal offenses, and while it is flawed, it is what we have. I think I was drawn to this memory, this clip, because I wanted to see a lawfully abiding courtroom system hold the Hollywood tyrant of Guantanamo Base accountable. And I want to learn more what it takes for white men (and women) to awaken to what is within them, for us to be held accountable.

Gadsby’s artistry moves through a similar pattern of ‘holding the form expected,’ until she doesn’t. What held her speech? What held her speech for decades, before it finally came tumbling out? A social order in which homosexuality was considered a crime (“til 1999,” she quips, “not quite long enough ago”), for one, but also a small-town or at least more easily rural setting in which shame ruled the roost. White male power, cloaked in (largely) Christian garb of patriarchal texts and worldviews. A social system in which there is a Center, and she’s not a part of it, at all. “I haven’t wasted a lot of time looking for how I fit in (in high classical art). I don’t. A lot of naps.” Family and local community relationships kept her silent, for years too. Her mother likened her daughter’s coming out “a little bit lesbian,” as something she didn’t need to know. “What if I had told you I was a murderer?” she recounts her mother saying to her. They laugh and jest within one another about it today, but a mother saying that to a teenage girl? The pain of it... I myself recognize the shame that was then embedded into her from such an early age, and for so long. That silenced me for decades, in my stories without near the violence hers has had.

Gadsby then recounts the multiple instances of abuse and violence that kept her silent for so long. A man sexually abusing her when she was a child. Getting the shit beat out of her by a man at a subway stop when she was 17. Two men raping her when she was 23. “I didn’t tell the authorities,” she says, “nor go to hospital, and I should have. Why didn’t I? Because I thought that was all I was worth. And that is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate." Various moments in the show she pokes and jabs at this largely unspoken but increasingly visible aggression in white men (and women), unwilling to see or hear other points of view without denial or violence. Listening to her words again today, I'm struck by some of the prophecy-tones within them. "I don't hate men. I don't. I don’t even believe that women are better than men," she says. "I believe that women are just as corruptible by power as men, because you know what fellas, you don’t have a monopoly on the human condition, you arrogant fucks. But the story is as you’ve told it: power belongs to you. And if you can’t handle criticism, take a joke, or deal with your own tension without violence, you have to wonder if you are up to the task of being in charge." And if you can’t handle criticism, take a joke, or deal with your own tension without violence, you have to wonder if you are up to the task of being in charge.

And so what broke the barrier for her to finally speak out? Over ten years on the stand-up comedy scene, learning her artistry. Becoming reflective of the dehumanizing dynamics in comedy today and the increasingly debilitating role she was playing in destroying her own well-being, sense of self. A week of flow-writing in which the show poured out of her onto the page. Maybe it was just one night, I can’t recall precisely, but I know it came out as a whoosh of Truth for her. And then persistently, consistently, performing it, night after night, for well over a year. Therefore an act of courage and impressive resilience, endurance, and today, as I said above, prophetic insight. All of that broke the barrier for her to finally say what she’s not supposed to say in societies where whiteness is assumed.

But we can learn here... Her artistry is never a lack of control or an uncontrolled rage, nor a willingness to use anger to incite a rage. Near the end of the show, she pauses, smiles. “To the men in the room…” she says, pausing some more…“who feel I may have been persecuting you this evening… Well spotted. That’s pretty much what I’ve done there." She names it, minutes after the hour's experience of it.

"But this is theater, fellas, I’ve given you an hour, a taste. I have lived a life. The damage done to me is real and debilitating. I will never flourish…” She teaches, she smiles sadly, she stands before her audience, spent. She returns the room's awareness to the humanity of the very persons she "persecuted" for an hour. She invites her audience to see the violence, the pain, the men who have caused it...which are not far from our public images today, radicalized white men and women enraged in and violating the world stage. She closes her show with a plea and a mirror of what we need. “Through all the pain, he had a tether, a connection to the world, and that, that is the focus of the story we need. Connection.” I won't go into the context here, because the words could stand alone for us, here, now.

"He" needs a tether, whether "he" likes it or not. "He" needs to learn how to handle criticism...handle his own tension without violence. "He" is less and less up to the task of being in charge. It doesn't seem insignificant to me that Jessup is a fictional character (in the movie) and Gadsby is a real, live, flesh and blood human being. This distinction can mean different things, which I'll let you decide for you. For me, it mirrors that (especially white) men have so very few legitimate role models of a healthy masculinity that can collaborate, that can hold tension or shame or failure or whatever and refuse violence, that can surrender or relinquish ego without losing himself. [One that comes to mind, though, is Ode to Joy, a recent film with Martin Freeman and Morena Baccarin. A white man has an illness that causes him to collapse anytime he experiences strong emotion.] Sad, but true. But it takes a courtroom and an entire societal uprising to begin to limit the "free speech of the white man." Whiteness has held its sway with violence for centuries, so of course, it would resort to violence now. Will more of us be willing to no longer deny? Allow the suffering others are experiencing without distancing ourselves from it? Why does it take the ransacking of the Capitol for more of us to notice...? Good questions to ask, for which only you, each of us reading, has his/her/their answer.

And "We"... We need to listen for what keeps each of us silent in the face of suffering--visible and hidden.

We need to learn what will break the barriers for us to come to voice about what we see, all without losing the humanity of the others around us. It is the only way for us to retain our own humanity, you see. This movement is not about 'them' out there, it's about me, myself, holding onto my own humanity. It strikes me today that more and more white people are realizing that the habits of denial and avoidance are getting painful for more and more of us, not just people of color. When will we learn to listen for and allow legitimacy to the sufferings all around us?

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