It’s almost that time of year again—and we don’t just mean Halloween. The eagerly anticipated fifth season of the American Horror Story anthology on the FX television channel is ready to air.
AHS is something of a guilty pleasure for the two of us, not least for its superb casts, vivid (if grotesque) blending of history with American popular culture, and wild, even haunting, flights of imagination that often touch on themes of dehumanization, prejudice, fairness, and justice.
The two of us aren’t alone. Many people love to be terrified out of their wits by fictional ghosts, psychopaths, and disturbed strangers who lurk in shadows at the dark end of the street—just so long as nobody really gets hurt and the story finally ends.
But what happens when the story isn’t just a fabrication; when shocking revelation or dramatic denouement cannot solve the problem; when the violence takes a never-ending toll?
In our book Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics, we tell such an American horror story that to date has no end. This story focuses on a society that sincerely decries violence and claims to punish it harshly, even as it perpetrates violence on a massive scale.
Here are five myths that support this paradox.
Myth 1: The primary perpetrators of violence are individual or small groups of misfits, angry loners, extremists, social outliers, and rogue actors who violate commonly-agreed upon standards of fairness.
The conceptual current of individualism courses through almost every aspect of the dominant American imagination, including how the nation understands violence.
The media love stories of lone gunmen, disgruntled loners, and the crazy student who open fire in the hallways of a school, church, or workplace. These seductive narratives stir people’s imaginations but obscure reality. Individuals do act on their own will, and there are many people who do, for numerous reasons, commit terrible acts.
But all of this takes place in a context. There are no isolated acts of violence and no isolated killers. Finding the balance between individual will and social pressure can be complicated, but to avoid this complication is to misunderstand and misrepresent the scope and nature of violence in the United States. We can mourn all those lost in various ways to violence, but to have any hope at all of significantly reducing it, we must turn away from the myths to face a more unsettling reality.
The most prevalent forms of violence in this country are structural; that is, to say, rooted in entirely “respectable,” even normative, structures, policies, practices, and varieties of cultural expression. Though society criminalizes rape, for example, sexual threat and violence remain commonplace in workplaces, colleges and universities, the U.S. military, and in policing and prisons.
Structural forms of violence are “built-in” features of mainstream economic policy and practices. In the U.S. military and criminal legal system (policing, prosecution, and prisons/punishment), torture is ordinary.
Myth 2: Violence directed against marginalized groups is rooted in the irrational personal prejudices of individuals, fear and loathing of difference, lack of tolerance for others “who aren’t like me,” and ignorance of the traditions/histories of others.
Structural forms of violence primarily harm people and communities who, since colonial days, have been considered in some way inferior, degenerate, and dangerous. This includes people of color, particularly Black and Indigenous peoples, poor and homeless people, immigrants, queers and gender nonconforming people, women, people with disabilities, and certain religious communities. Rooted in white supremacist, patriarchal, and other supremacist ideologies that do the dirty work of “worthiness” triage, this violence is entirely rational. It controls the (upward) distribution of social, civic, and economic goods and well-being; it grants and denies access to the free exercise of inherent civil and human rights.
In her book Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, Ruth Wilson Gilmore provides an apt framework for understanding structural violence. She defines racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Economic, social, political, and cultural factors combine to deliver persistent forms of abuse, stigmatization, and death—especially at the intersections of race and poverty.
Yet for more than thirty years, the concept of “hate crime” has been used to characterize violence against historically marginalized communities. Now enshrined in federal and many state laws, this concept suggests that such violence is the result of irrational bad attitudes and ignorance in a basically egalitarian society that deplores violence. The problem is not structural, but individual, and violence is the province of unenlightened thugs.
This frame creates no pathways toward holding civic, economic, and religious systems and institutions accountable for the harm they do; offers no vision of justice beyond policing, courtrooms, and prisons.
This myth asserts that the historical and contemporary specificities of hatreds, oppression, and violence directed against different communities do not matter.
There is a deep cultural impulse to condemn hate wholesale, to totalize it as a single emotion. People do this because hate is a powerful, frightening emotion, and just thinking about it often feels overwhelming. But the emotion and enactment of hate have histories that overlap and diverge from one another. Animus aimed at one group has specific historical and cultural roots based on the experiences of those who hate and those who are hated. To ignore these specific contexts is to ignore the roots of various kinds of hatreds, and, just as important, how hate is mobilized and how it actually affects people and communities. The neutral legal language of hate crime laws, for instance, reinforces the idea that “hate is hate” and encourages any group to see itself primarily as a victim in need of greater policing or military assistance.
There is a similar tendency to apply a kind of historical whitewash to understanding different eruptions and expressions of violence.
In the United States, violence has always been used to enforce supremacist ideologies and injustice. By contrast, violence also sometimes is a component of resistance to persistent injustice and oppression. The institution of chattel slavery provides an illustration of the former; slave revolts illustrate the latter. The two are not equivalent.
Ignoring these specificities and differences ensures that structural forms of violence will not even be recognized, much less dismantled.
Myth 4: In order to secure our safety—in our communities and in the larger society—we need better ways to identify and isolate and pre-emptively respond to the terrorists, extremists, criminals, and mentally unstable people who are likely to commit violent acts.
There has always been a powerful strand of American political discourse that disguises supremacy ideology as the protector of all that is good and decent. The perpetuation of this masquerade depends on the promotion of fear and enemy orientation as central organizing principles of society. This myth has justified American Indian genocide, slavery, lynching, the massive harms of eugenics, and race- and class-based policing and mass incarceration.
It rationalizes and justifies ever-widening spirals of surveillance, various kinds of profiling, technologies of control and containment, and the default resort to intensified policing and deployment of militarized force as the way to create “homeland security.” “Stand Your Ground” and “Castle Doctrine” gun laws reify this same fear-soaked premise, with disastrous consequences.
Even great tragedy becomes the occasion for reinforcing this “beset and besieged” mindset. In the wake of mass shootings, media pundits and politicians rush to attribute violence to mentally unstable loners.
This is followed by a flurry of suggestions to create new “mental health registries” to be used by law enforcement authorities to anticipate or predict the future violent behavior of individuals. Calls go out to fill schools with more “resource officers”—public or private police—teachers, and administrators who are all armed to the teeth. Today, so-called “evidence-based assessments” are used to predict the likelihood of future violent behavior of individuals.
Myth 5: Good people, like you and me, are not responsible for the violence that is so prevalent in American society.
When we fail to recognize structural violence and its roots in supremacy ideology, the comforting belief persists that so long as you and I didn’t actually pull the trigger or actively aid and abet someone else’s act of violence, we bear no responsibility for it.
Yet we do; responsibility is both individual and collective.
For many of us, being implicated in structural violence is unthinkable, even unbearable. We want to locate responsibility somewhere else, in somebody else, anybody else, just not in ourselves. In part, this is because the idea of collective responsibility is so deeply associated with the idea of collective punishment.
It doesn’t have to be.
We can change that idea by changing the larger story. Collective responsibility can be defined and brought to life in new ways. We might, for example, understand it not only as the responsibility to interrupt multiple forms of violence without resorting to violent structural interventions but also as a transformative approach to creating just communities through a radical commitment to new, just social, economic, cultural, and ecological relationships.
Society is, at root, a product of imagination. It is the translation of ideas and possibilities, hopes and dreams—and fears—into material form.
One new collective aspiration might call us to bolder forms of structural rejection of supremacist ideology, fear, and enmity as overt and unspoken organizing principles in favor of an ethic of embracing and extending radical generosity toward our neighbors.
To do even that much would constitute one essential step toward finally bringing the ongoing American Horror Story to a long overdue and richly deserved end.
About the Authors
Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow her on Twitter at @KayJWhitlock.
Michael Bronski has been involved in gay liberation as a political organizer, writer, and editor for more than four decades. The author of several award-winning books, including A Queer History of the United States, he also coauthored “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People and Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics. Bronski is Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.