Roles of Engagement is a column concerning the actions and dimensions of allyship, looking at cultural events both locally and nationally. Sultana Khan (@YesAsInGenghis) is a Portland-based writer and has written for Gawker, Jalopnik, and Dispatch magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.
It seems as if the last year has been one filled with emotionally devastating events, each tragedy failing to achieve any sense of closure before the next surge crashes over our heads. To live in this world, in 2017, feels like it has become an exercise in survival, our lives reduced to thistorturous cycle of holding our heads aloft long enough to take shallow gulps of air before being pushed under once again.Fear of the swell that finally does us in seems to be permanently lurking just below the surface.
Inevitably, the rhetoric surrounding these occurrences fades to discussing the beauty and resiliency of the human spirit. Sound bites from heroic bystanders are woven into feel-good narratives, accompanied by a dramatic score guaranteed to bring even the most hardened cynic to tears. The oft-repeated quote, “Look for the helpers,” attributed to Fred Rogers’ mother, gets Instagrammed onto sunset backgrounds and hashtagged almost unto death, until finally, the pain of our entirely avoidable circumstance is diluted to a dull, pounding ache.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Rogers’ advice was intended for children.
In fact, the PBS website where the story is corroborated is titled, “Helping Children Deal with Tragic Events in the News.” But in this America, the one we have made for ourselves, Rogers’ advice has become the standard placebo for adults desperate to make sense of a seemingly insensible world. It’s easier to look for the helpers than to work toward actionable change, the kind of change that would address the deaths of the33,000 people killed annually by gun violence.
I understand the value in looking for the helpers, although a darker, uglier voice in my head wonders, “Is humanity worth celebrating right now?”But I believe it’s worth reframing the advice for adults— after all, we’re the ones tasked with creating the ambitious policies and cultures that would eradicate the need for these helpers. So while we’re celebrating the heroes who unhesitatingly shield others from gunfire with their equally fragile flesh, or the brave people who form human chains to rescue desperate strangers from rising floodwaters, or the mayor who wades through sewage to help her constituents while their president plays golf … look for the haters, too.
Look for the people whose only action is to offer thoughts and prayers — look for the Joel Osteens. Look for the politicians who preempt meaningful discussions about climate change and gun violence and peaceful protesting with cries of politicization or disrespect. Look for the ones who call for “civil discourse,” a (racist) dog whistle meant to undermine the righteous fury of folks who have every right to be screaming and spitting.
Look for the ones who profit in the wake of a tragedy. Sturm Ruger’s stocks gained four percent on October 2. The stock of the company who owns the Winchester brand of ammunition reached an all-time high that same day. It’s appalling, but we’ve been through this often enough to now know that gun stocks have a history of rallying directly after mass shootings. What’s to incentivize gun manufacturers to do anything about the violence their products beget?
Look for the racists, the subtle and the overt ones. Look for the people who won’t label a man who killed 59 people a terrorist because he’s white. Look for the people who use this opportunity to claim the shooter could have been attacking Christians without a shred of evidence to support it. Look for the media bias that would allow this man to be labeled a “lone wolf” or mentally ill without looking at the radicalization of young white men in this country. Look at the FBI whose top priority in labeling new domestic threats is to focus on “black identity extremists.”
Look for the people who play sleight of hand tricks by introducing new legislation to roll back health care mandates that protect women’s reproductive rights. Look for schools that pass measures allowing them to expel protestors. Look for the enablers who allow serial sexual harassers to prey on young women for decades until they can no longer do so, not because they’ve come to understand morality, but because they finally got caught. Look for the companies that erect statues of bold young girls and then quietly settle for millions because they’ve been systematically underpaying women for years.
Keep a weather eye on the enemy — they only seem to be winning right now. They’re adrift in the same ocean, and with the slightest change in current, they could be gasping for air, too.