I wasn’t bullied a lot in high school, but I remember what it was like when I was. Being violated makes you into a different person, a person who cannot control, cannot be sure, cannot feel safe. Again, this didn’t happen to me very much, but I remember what it was like. And I remember just as vividly what it was like when a guy on the high school basketball team, a popular person, told the guy who was picking on me, in gym class of all the cliched places, that I was “cool.” It was in a stairwell. “Bady’s cool,” he said. “You’re not.” That was the day the bullying stopped, because it had stopped being “funny.”
The point of Judith Butler’s argument about “grievable life” is actually pretty simple: when violence happens against some kinds of living beings, it’s a big fucking deal. When it happens against other kinds, it isn’t. She has examples. You can come up with your own. New Yorkers on 9/11. Pakistani males “of military age” who happen to be somewhere where they might get hit by a drone, like Pakistan. Palestinian children and Israeli children. One kind of death matters a lot, another kind somehow seems to not matter so much. I don’t need to tell you which is which. The only question worth asking is this one: what makes some kinds of life more grievable than others?
You might say that Judith Butler is theorizing a kind of marketplace, or a stock market: the value of some lives rises, while that of others falls. Between 1970 and 1990, the value of prison life fell, as mass culture became less and less interested in “correcting” and rehabilitating, and more and more interested in punishing. Today, we make jokes about people getting raped in jail, in “pound-you-in-the-ass” prison. It’s a way to not think about the kinds of violence people condemned to that life have to endure. If it’s funny that people get raped in jail, after all, then you don’t have to think about them as people, you don’t have to take their pain into consideration. They’re nothing to you. Their degradation makes you laugh.
The phrase “rape culture” describes the way people don’t get too upset at the thought of a woman being raped. They might even laugh at it. It might seem funny, such a funny word. But nothing about this is just a joke. It’s about devaluing the sanctity of certain people’s security in their person, about refusing to feel bad about it, about taking a pride in it, even. Saying “wouldn’t it be funny if a violent act happened to this person” is almost the definition of how that works. If a terrible thing happened to a person, you say, I would not grieve. I would laugh. Their pain is not worth my empathy, or yours. Their pain makes me stronger, bigger, more important. Their pain is worth nothing.