“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” — A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
I am not one for Dickens most of the time, but if ever we were in a time that is both the best and worst of humanity, it feels like it is right now. In the span of just two weeks we’ve been outraged at the leniency given to the Stanford rapist and we’ve wept for those killed in Orlando. These are both tragedies of different kinds, but the pain to those involved in them is so very real.
Still, at the bottom of Pandora’s Box there is hope.
In this same time frame we have also seen the great capacity for human kindness, generosity, and empathy. The internet was lit ablaze with the anger and outrage of people all over the world who could not stand to see Brock Turner all but go free after raping a woman behind a dumpster. When his father appealed to the judge for leniency by writing about Brock’s lack of interest in steak dinners and snacks, even those among us who are not prone to outrage couldn’t contain their shock at the obtuse letter and the father who wrote it. The mainstream media was using terms like “rape culture” not only correctly but without irony. I got minors in Women’s Studies and journalism when I earned my BA in 1998. To say I’ve waited a long time to see my work — and the work of countless rape prevention organizations and individual activists — taken seriously is an understatement. I not only welcome the outrage, but I feel validated and encouraged that so many people finally see the injustices in the system. That’s how change starts — first with awareness that sparks outrage, then with action.
The news of the Stanford rape verdict, along with reliving of the gory details of the crime and the eloquent yet painful words of the victim ringing in our ears and hearts, would be enough. That was a big moment all on its own, the effects of which will continue to echo for some time. But there is no rule about tragedy. It doesn’t wait until we are healed from the last one. And so we found ourselves fresh in shock, mourning, and anger at the news of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando over the weekend — the deadliest mass shooting in American history. That would be enough in itself, but there was more.
The victims of the shooting were targeted because they were LGBTQ and it was Latin night. This has cut open a terrible wound in our collective psyche. This tragedy happened in the midst of Pride Month and at a place of solidarity and safety for LGBTQ people. I don’t think that Larry Wilmore was all that wrong in comparing the gay nightclub scene to that of black churches, in terms of them being safe places to gather for marginalized and oppressed people and also places that allowed for civil rights movements to come to fruition. It is not a leap to compare the Stonewall riots to the Alabama church bombings. Both events happened because of bigotry — homophobia and racism, respectively — and catalyzed movements that resulted in civil rights for those groups. (I understand that some of you will balk at the idea of comparing nightclubs to churches, but in this case I’m not talking about their prescribed function but their community function as a gathering place for oppressed people. Big picture, people. Don’t lose the forest for the trees.)
There have been countless acts of love and kindness following the Orlando tragedy, including candlelight vigils, solidarity walks (I’ll be at the one scheduled to start at 7 p.m. on Monday, June 20 leaving from the Fashion Show Mall), donations to causes to help the victims and their loved ones, blood drives, airlines offering free airfare to victim’s families, real estate agents offering free lodging, translators volunteering at the funerals and events, comfort animals traveling to Florida, and on and on. If there is one universal lesson we can immediately take from the shooting, it is that Americans have a far greater capacity for generosity and love than hate, despite what internet trolls and comment sections might otherwise make you believe.
This is proof of my most deeply held conviction — that on balance, more people are good than bad. It is sometimes hard to believe that when my job requires me to drill down into the worst parts of humanity. But the reason why I’m still here blogging about feminist politics some nine years after launching this site, is because I could not drill down to those depths if I did not first believe in my heart that those depths are the outliers of the human condition, not the default. My ability to see hope in outrage and the opportunity for change during the starkest of times is rooted in my belief that given the choice, most people will choose good over evil. This belief has gotten me nicknamed Pollyanna more than once. In my cynical profession, open optimism and hope are rare. (Although, I will out my colleagues as being secret optimists, too, because otherwise why bother.) If our worst fears — that nobody cares — were actually true there would be no journalists, bloggers, social workers, psychiatrists, teachers, or any other profession that is predicated on bettering communities.
You’ll notice that I didn’t include politicians in that list. I am optimistic, but I’m not naïve. So often elected officials do the things that are easy and not necessarily the things that are right. As President Obama delivered his 16th mass shooting address, a lot of us felt the inevitability of the script to come. The flags will go back to full mast. People will stop caring. Nothing will change. Except, that’s not what happened this time.
Earlier this week at an Orlando vigil, Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican running for re-election, said he was sorry for how he had treated LGBTQ people in the past. You can hear his voice crack. I know politicians can sometimes be good actors, but his sincerity was palpable.
And then yesterday, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy spearheaded a 15-hour Democrat filibuster for changes to gun laws. He ended his historic filibuster with a story about Sandy Hook victims 6-year-old Dylan Hockley and his teacher’s aide Anne Marie Murphy.
It doesn’t take courage to stand here on the floor of the United States Senate for two hours or six hours or 14 hours. It takes courage to look into the eye of a shooter and instead of running, wrapping your arms around a 6-year-old boy and accepting death. — Sen. Murphy
The acts of these politicians will not magically change everything. The arguments about gun control laws will not end because of this one filibuster. And sadly, homophobia will not end because one politician’s heart is changed. Still, I’m taking these acts as signs of hope. This is only the eye of the storm and there will no doubt be more tragedy and more violence to come before we solve some of our toughest challenges. It is precisely because of the challenges ahead and the darkness that exists that I am heartened by one man’s revelation and another man’s earnest plea for change. That we are at this moment having these conversations is important. That people are not turning away after tragedy, but instead choosing to roll up their sleeves and engage in the messy, difficult work that results in change, that is a reason to continue to believe in the goodness of humanity. These are the moments that sustain me. This is why I do the work that I do.
Sometimes the ray of hope makes all the difference between giving up and going on. Let’s keep going.
Photo credit: Las Vegas News Bureau