CW: This article discusses abuse including sexual abuse, and violence against oppressed groups. There is no graphic detail.
“The righteous rise with burning eyes
Of hatred and ill will
Madmen fed on fear and lies
To beat and burn and kill
They say there are strangers who threaten us
Our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness too dangerous
In our theaters and bookstore shelves
Those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves
Quick to judge, quick to anger
Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice
And fear walk hand in hand” -Rush, Witch Hunt
Abuse thrives in secrecy. As long as victims remain silent, the abuse can continue. This is true for both individual abuse and systemic oppression. The goal is to keep victims quiet and exclude witnesses from the conversation. This is why it’s so important to think carefully about oppression information: whose voices are being drowned out, and who is being given a platform? Who is missing from the conversation, or being ignored completely?
Over the past weekend, I got the book “Becoming Free Indeed” by Jinger Duggar Vuolo from my local library. The author failed to adequately address the three abuse scandals she is famous for being around: her cult leader, Bill Gothard, her brother, Josh, and her parents, Jim Bob and Michelle. I call her response inadequate because her perspective remains, despite her frequent protests, deeply entangled with what she was taught. The tragedy of the book is that she blames herself, rather than the isolation and indoctrination of her parents, for believing what she was taught. Jinger also fails to condemn the homophobia and transphobia of her parents, and I believe that is because she still embraces this bigotry.
Hundreds of bills are being advanced to limit our rights as trans people in the United States. Last week, the New York Times silenced and disciplined over a thousand members of its own staff for calling out anti-trans rhetoric in its reporting. Over the past month, Megan Phelps-Roper has been releasing a podcast platforming J. K. Rowling, who has made it abundantly clear that she hates trans people. “The Witch Trials” is all about making money. I haven’t listened to it because it costs money to access, and it is being used to fund hatred. “Becoming Free Indeed” has the same problem, which is why I got it digitally at the library.
Dismissing the seriousness of abuse with unequal comparisons
According to Christian conservative ethics, all wrongdoing can be lumped into the same category. They call it “sin,” and it is defined as disobeying god. The problem is that not all wrongdoing is the same. There’s a difference between a child sneaking a cookie and an adult sexually abusing a child. The former is innocent, the latter is violent, traumatizing, and harmful. It is abuse. When someone says these two things are the same in the eyes of god, they are oversimplifying a complex world in a way that dismisses victims of abuse.
This same line of reasoning is used to equalize unequal groups of people. If everyone is just as culpable of sin as everyone else, nobody is innocent. It’s the thought process that says “both sides are equally to blame for attacking each other” when one group is the victim of the other. When the police – an armed and legally protected group – kill unarmed people, we cannot claim that the sides are equal. There is a clear perpetrator and a clear victim, and it shouldn’t be controversial to say so, but here we are.
In her book, Jinger fails to call out abuse because her worldview insists that everyone is equally guilty before god. Her brother Josh is in prison for possession of child pornography, aka child sexual exploitation. Instead of identifying the seriousness of this charge, she merely says that she is praying that he will repent from his sin. The former leader of her family’s cult IBLP, Bill Gothard, is not condemned for the seriousness of sexually assaulting young women and underage girls. She briefly admits that she believes his victims but spends the majority of the book talking about how his teachings aren’t biblical enough.
This equalization is blatant in the title and marketing of Megan Phelps-Roper’s podcast. Historically, people burned as witches were targeted by the church. They were tortured and executed, their names and legacies lost to memory because their bodies were turned to ash. The fact is that they were not famous, rich, or powerful. That is why they were easy targets for their oppressors and abusers. Even the most famous person burned as a witch, Joan of Arc, was young and poor and couldn’t escape her fate. However, the term “faggot” – often used in a derogatory way to refer to gay and trans people – has its origins in burning people for their deviation from cultural norms. I give this context because in the modern world, words recorded on the internet are conflated with literal torture and murder.
Nobody has physically attacked J. K. Rowling. She is not in danger of arrest, torture, or execution. She has not been chased by a mob and physically captured. She is not on trial before a court with the power to determine a sentence. With images of flames and the terminology of “witch trials,” the so-called Free Press makes Rowling into a victim of hatred. No trans people or even gay people were interviewed as part of the so-called documentary. It is facetious to call J. K. Rowling the victim of a witch trial. The images of flames are, quite literally, inflammatory. They are designed to provoke emotion while giving a platform to a famous and powerful billionaire, excluding the trans people it discusses.
When debate turns deadly
So, are Jinger Duggar Vuolo and Megan Phelps-Roper free from fear and hate? Jinger has not distanced herself from the bigotry she was raised with. Megan has not distanced herself from the bigotry she was raised with, either. When someone says that human lives are up for discussion or debate, pay attention to who is included in that discussion. Who is dying? Who cares when people are murdered? Who has the power, the money, the influence, the publications and the microphone?
These conversations ignore the oppressed. The people suffering oppression from lack of access are the poor, unpowerful, and marginalized. Our lives are not up for debate, because debating our right to live is deadly for us.