@JoyceCarolOates UGH. This should be beneath you.
— Anita Felicelli (@AnitaFelicelli) July 5, 2013
Last Friday, while most Americans were enjoying the long weekend, novelist Joyce Carol Oates tweeted the following question: “Where 99.3% of women report having been sexually harassed & rape is epidemic–Egypt–natural to inquire: what’s the predominant religion?” I was more than a little taken aback. This tweet didn’t sound like the highly intelligent author Joyce Carol Oates.
That Joyce Carol Oates knows violence, is smart about describing violence, understands violence as something that could erupt from all kinds of human beings, including Americans, including non-Muslims. I tweeted, “UGH. This should be beneath you.”
It’s routinely open season on Islam (and for that matter anything associated in the popular imagination with brown or black people) in America. But with the nature of her oeuvre, I expect more humanity from Oates. But maybe I’ve been misreading her novels?
In a 2012 interview with Salon, she said, “there is the pretense that history hasn’t been a sequence of bloody wars and that it’s an aberration of some sort in a writer or artist who perceives the obvious fact that there is indeed “violence” in the world — which is to say, in the human heart.” At her best, Oates understands violence is a human problem and phenomenon.At her best, Oates understands violence is a human problem and phenomenon
A few other people tweeted their dismay at her train of thought, but Oates kept going. She tweeted, “Rape culture” has no relationship to any “religious culture”–how can this be? Religion has no effect on behavior at all? How possible?”
This tweet, of course, was misdirection designed to set thinking people back. Religion is prescriptive. As Oates tweeted, if it does not affect culture, what good is it? Religion as interpreted by fallible human beings does affect behavior, of course. But that does not rationally lead to the claim that rapists are doing so because of religious influence — she need only look at America’s appalling rape statistics to know why someone might be disturbed by the causal relationship implied in her tweet.
I wondered what Oates would say if I focused on something that the media reports as being a big problem in an America dominated by Christianity — the regular mass school shootings of children. I tweeted (rhetorically) “Do you also think that mass gun violence in schools bears a relationship to Christianity?” I thought faced with absurdity she might course-correct.
Instead, Oates tweeted to me, “Yes. There is a Christian Crusade culture. All religions are “militant.” Secular law needed to restrain them.”
I don’t know if Oates said this to save face or because she really believes it, but wow. With my own set of biases, I’d assumed she was doing what seems to be popular right now — tossing off pithy and unfair generalizations about cultures and religions related to brown people. Whatever her original motivation for the first tweet, she was quite willing to throwing stones at all religions, making their most radical movements synonymous for the entire religion.
Meanwhile, on Salon an article had been posted calling Oates’s tweets Islamophobic. So was her comment on Christian Crusade culture an earnest tweet or a disingenuous effort to save face after being accused of Islamophobia? Liking her writing as I do, I want to believe it’s the former, but I’m afraid it’s probably the latter.
Oates’s response doesn’t make much sense in light of her opening tweet about Islam. If Oates believes all religions are militant and give rise to violence, why does it matter which religion is dominant in Egypt? Why is it “natural” to wonder what the dominant religion there is? According to her tweet about Christians and schoolroom shootings, it could just as well be any religion.
When violence is local, like an American school shooting, those who comment usually focus on the fact that the perpetrator was different, didn’t fit in. In fact, even when there is no mental illness involved, the public makes an effort to manufacture one, to explain away the evil as an aberration of the culture rather than a symptom of it. If it’s a local rape, we see from Steubenville coverage that our mainstream media reports more sympathy for the boy rapists, than the rape victim.
But when the problem is farther away, like in Egypt or India, the small-minded pick on the otherness itself as the problem, whether it’s a country’s dominant religious beliefs or as David Brooks put it, their “intellectual DNA.”
I knew two nerdy young men in high school in Palo Alto who expressed on several occasions that “all women” should be raped, deserved to be raped when they talked back to men. They happened to be Israeli and Russian by birth and ancestry, though they grew up in America. Both were Jewish.
Most people understand immediately that it would be inane and anti-Semitic for me to suggest that it was these young men’s Jewishness that led to their belief that all women should be raped. But in America, you need only see the comments section of the Salon piece on Oates’s Islamaphobia to know that it’s not only okay, but praiseworthy to make these nonsensical claims about Muslims.We know there are permutations of violence that are culturally sanctioned
We know there are permutations of violence that are culturally sanctioned. But religion and culture are not equivalent. Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism are incredibly complex, even in their ideal rather than as-practiced forms. The dark hearts of people of all faiths and cultures pervert and twist whatever is handy to justify, beget and sustain their violent acts.
Is it natural to ask about a country’s predominant religion? Maybe. It is natural to possess biases, prejudices and random half-baked ideas. But natural is not the same thing as good. And natural is not the same thing as rational. Few of us expect a feminist literary force to casually air and luxuriate in what reads as bigotry on Twitter. Maybe it is natural to indulge in one’s worst cognitive errors in response to violence, but it is also depressingly small. Few of us expect a feminist literary force to casually air and luxuriate in what reads as bigotry on Twitter
Perhaps Oates would agree. A few days later she tweeted a possible course-correction: “Blaming religion(s) for cruel behavior of believers may be a way of not wishing to acknowledge they’d be just as cruel if secular.”