“Trauma happens so fast, it can almost be said that we know it only when it is too late. Testimony is our desperate and ethical effort to catch up, to set things right.”
–Ken Corbett, A Murder Over a Girl: Justice, Gender, Junior High
In a June 12, 2016, Op-Ed (“The Scope of the Orlando Carnage”) New York Times columnist Frank Bruni joined many pundits in cautioning against what he described as narrowly sectarian interpretations of the violence that was unleashed at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on the previous evening. “Let’s be clear,” Bruni declared, responding to “complaints on social media” about the failure of the mainstream media and politicians to avow the homophobic motivations of the attacker, “this was no more an attack on L.G.B.T. people than the bloodshed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris was an attack solely against satirists.” Extending this curious analogy between satirists and queer people, Paris and Orlando, Bruni explained that the violence in each case was ultimately directed at the same object: “freedom itself.” The murderers were taking “aim,” claimed Bruni, not principally at individuals or groups, but instead “at societies that, at their best, integrate and celebrate diverse points of view, diverse systems of belief, diverse ways to love. To speak of either massacre more narrowly than that is to miss the greater message, the more pervasive danger and the truest stakes.”
Notably, Bruni never explicates the “greater message,” “pervasive danger,” or “truest stakes,” leaving the referents of these words hanging in a diffuse cloud of paranoia. Nevertheless, his column is perhaps worth revisiting now for this reason: its rhetoric exemplifies a way of coming to terms with and interpreting violence — what I would call a hermeneutic of violence — that has gained increasing currency in our public discourse during this cruelest of summers. To unpack the logic of this hermeneutic a bit further: according to Bruni, the object of Omar Mateen’s violence was not merely the bodies of the predominantly queer people of color occupying Pulse that evening — bodies that Mateen found to be so intolerable that he decided to mutilate as many as possible with shells fired from a military-grade assault rifle — but rather ideas: freedom, diversity, democratic society. For Bruni, in other words, the literal violence visited upon the victims ultimately realized itself as a kind of metaphorical violence directed at a larger social body.
This is all to say that embedded in Bruni’s rhetoric is a story about Mateen’s violence, cushioning its shock, locating its apparent senselessness within a meaningful narrative featuring an identifiable “us” that has suffered violence and an undefined “them” that promises more to come. The collective “we” that has been touched by this (metaphorical) violence are the members of a secular culture that disgusts “them.” We, Bruni maintains, live in societies that tolerate difference, whereas “they” find this tolerance intolerable. The “pervasive danger” that Bruni invokes but never names would thus appear to be a threat to “our” way of life coming from some primitivized other. Nothing about our society made the violence in Orlando possible, we are told. This wasn’t really about queer people. They were casualties in a clash of civilizations.
It should be said that the desire to hear and produce such narratives of violence is to a certain extent understandable. For even when we are not literally touched by them, acts of cruelty tend to disorganize our capacity for reflection, particularly to the extent that our reaction to them is colored by an identification with the victims. To be a witness to their suffering — to survive it, to live on after it, and not to forget it — is in some measure to suffer from it too, to be undone by it, if only temporarily. It is to find oneself engaged in what the psychoanalyst Ken Corbett, borrowing from the language of the law, calls testimony: “a desperate and ethical effort to catch up, to set things right.”
To speak of such narratives as testimony, however, implies that one is governed in their telling by a certain responsibility. Indeed, this ethical dimension of testimony is embedded in the word itself, coming from the Latin testis, meaning a witness, one who attests to what they have seen, and monium, meaning an obligation or debt. To be engaged in testimony, one might say, is to find oneself invested by a responsibility to speak truly about the acts that one has observed. This is not to say that there is some eternal truth of the matter wholly independent of the perspective of the witness. Rather, following Hannah Arendt, we might think of testimony as spoken from the witness’s uniquely distinct position within the fabric of a shared world. If violence tends to rend the ties between us, then perhaps testimony — our talking about it — is driven by a desire to repair that in-between.
Nevertheless, as a gay man who has been the object of thankfully less extreme forms of cruelty than was unleashed at Pulse, I could not help but cringe upon encountering the rhetoric exemplified by Bruni’s column. Like many queer people, I experienced accounts similar to Bruni’s of the violence in Pulse, which reduced literal violation to metaphorical harm, singular individuals and historically vulnerable groups to an undifferentiated collective, as constituting another kind of violation.
Such was my experience reading a campus-wide email sent by New School President David Van Zandt on the morning following the attack. While appropriately expressing grief for the victims and their families and making counseling services available to the New School community, Van Zandt’s statement concluded with the following account of the slaughter:
In many ways, all of us were targets yesterday. Our freedom of thought, lifestyles, and beliefs were attacked. As more details surfaced yesterday, I was reminded of The New School’s commitment to academic freedom and tolerance, and how our world needs these values more than ever.
Many hallmarks of the hermeneutic of violence I describe above can be found in Van Zandt’s email. Like Bruni, Van Zandt interprets Mateen’s literal attack on victims belonging to an historically vulnerable group (queer people of color) as a metaphorical violence visited upon a homogenous collective (“In many ways, all of us were targets yesterday”), identifies abstract ideals (“freedom of thought, lifestyles, and beliefs”) with the object of the attack, and concludes with a call for a renaissance of liberal values. In the emotionally raw days after the attack, language such as this, which refused to name the homophobic sadism that took the lives of victims, struck like a blow; many of us who have personally felt that specific kind of hate could not help but experience the benighted words of Bruni, Van Zandt, and others as a redoubling of its harm. Thankfully, I was not alone in this respect.
At the New School, an informal network of grief, grievance, and anger developed among students and faculty, queer people and our friends. The outcome of our efforts was a public petition criticizing Van Zandt’s statement, which ultimately received nearly two hundred signatures. Though Van Zandt has not apologized for the remarks cited above, he did issue a follow-up message that identified the attack as “an act of hate against the LGBTQ, people of color, and Latino communities.”
I cannot speak for its other authors, but I would like to offer a justification of our petition as an act of testimony. To borrow a concept originally developed by Gayle Rubin and expanded by the philosopher Judith Butler, I argue that acts of violence such as what occurred in Orlando need to be understood in the context of our culture’s “sex/gender system”: that set of beliefs and evaluations determinative of legitimate and illegitimate practices of sex, gender, and desire. To live one’s life in a way that is in variance with the norms of heterosexism, white supremacy, and cis-genderism governing our sex/gender system is to be a thorn in the side of those whose sense of self is dogmatically derived from an adherence to them; it is to be a phobic object. Importantly, such fear and hatred occurs on a continuum, ranging from veiled discomfort to violent disgust.
During my time in New York City, I’ve experienced everything from the side-eyed apprehension of strangers tracking me and a partner holding hands on a subway platform to outright verbal and near-physical harassment for engaging in public displays of affection. These examples of aggression are tame in comparison with what occurred in Orlando, or what occurs on a daily basis for the most vulnerable people in our present-day sex/gender system: poor, trans people of color. The point, though, is that such acts of aggression are indicative of an analyzable system of disadvantage and cruelty that confronts queer people on a daily basis. To cite words of Butler written more than twenty years ago and that remain sadly true today: ours is “a culture that appears to arrange always and in every way for the annihilation of queers.” In short, if the body count in Orlando was without precedent, the same cannot be said of the cruelty that took those lives.
The trouble with the hermeneutic of violence described above is that it renders this cruelty unthinkable: it erases our erasure. By interpreting Mateen’s violence as a symptom of some Manichean world-historical struggle (Bruni), by failing to attend to the ways in which violence is dealt out differently, unequally, and certainly not to “all of us” (Van Zandt), one relieves oneself of the responsibility of thinking the myriad ways in which such erasure continues to be enabled. To refuse to think gender hate qua gender hate, while telling stories about the eventual triumph of democratic solidarity, is to let ourselves off the hook. It is — to borrow another juridical metaphor employed by the philosopher Jacques Derrida — to give oneself an alibi.
By contrast, it seems to me now more than ever what is called for is an ethic of testimony: the exercise of a critical vigilance in the accounts that we tell about violence directed at precarious groups of people. Such an ethic could begin with the acknowledgment that the language with which we describe said violence withholds the threat of effacing the very conditions that gave rise to it — that what I am calling testimony can often naively or cynically operate in solidarity with the very violence it apparently denounces. In the case of Orlando, violence done to queer people has implicitly or explicitly functioned as an alibi for Islamophobia. The objects of phobic hatred, we as queer people have often found ourselves in the unenviable position of being summoned to testify on behalf of another phobic hatred; indeed, in this case the refusal to think the conditions of the cruelty directed at queer people has been the precondition for justifying cruelty against Muslim and Arab people.
To respond without alibi to the violence in Orlando is to resist this killing rhetoric about killing. More broadly, I take it that feminist, queer, intersectional, and trans traditions of thought and action constitute our most valuable resources for exercising the kind of critical vigilance I describe above. Despite being discounted as mere identity politics among many who would like to make the Left great again, these traditions continue to define the meaning of urgency when it comes to testifying responsibly to violence. To return in closing to President Van Zandt’s email: Though I am less sure than ever that the concept of “tolerance” invoked in his message should be guiding us now, as this summer ends, the fall semester approaches, and I begin prepare to teach these traditions to a seminar of first-year undergraduates at Eugene Lang College, “academic freedom” strikes me as one value that I can agree with him in endorsing without alibi.