When I was a kid my mother and father had one very big gripe about the media: the spin. They complained incessantly about talking heads telling them what to think or, worse, outright interpreting the comments of others for them. Their attitude was that while there was nothing wrong with smart analysis, taking the perfectly clear words of a political leader or cultural figure and basically laundering them through the ideology cycle until they came out confirming one person or party's biases was nothing more than an insulting exercise in naked opportunism. They figured they were smart people and could make up their own minds about what they'd just seen or heard. They didn't need to be condescended to by somebody with an agenda to push.
Thank fucking God they don't spend a lot of time on the internet or watching cable news these days.
This morning, Janay Rice (née Palmer) took to social media to voice her opinion on the offense of which she was the victim and the subsequent controversy involving her husband of which she's at the center. She excoriated the media and the various online commenters who have offered "unwanted options" (autocorrected opinions?) on her situation and what should be done about it.
It's about as unequivocal as you can get:
“I woke up this morning feeling like I had a horrible nightmare, feeling like I’m mourning the death of my closest friend. But to have to accept the fact that it’s reality is a nightmare in itself. No one knows the pain that hte media & unwanted options from the public has caused my family. To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing. To take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass of for all his life just to gain ratings is horrific.
“THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don’t you all get. If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you’ve succeeded on so many levels. Just know we will continue to grow & show the world what real love is! Ravensnation we love you!”
What we all saw on that video -- and what we knew about the incident to begin with -- was horrific and Ray Rice always deserved to be punished for it. It's simply impossible to overlook or excuse something like that. But for reasons none of us can ever fully understand, Janay Palmer chose to stay with him and marry him and continues to stand beside him. I don't personally claim to know a damn thing about Ray and Janay Rice's relationship other than what happened in the one truly devastating snapshot that's now ended his professional football career and, obviously, has impacted her life in a way she insists amounts to "a horrible nightmare." I wouldn't dare speak for or judge Janay Rice, nor am I in any position to question her demand for privacy or assume that it's somehow coerced, or the result of learned helplessness or Stockholm Syndrome. I can't and won't interpret her willingness to present herself and her husband as a cohesive unit facing a difficult trauma together as some kind of weakness or a secret cry for help. I can't do any of this because I'm not her.
The problem is, there are plenty of people out there who are willing to speak for her -- people who claim that because they've read the statistics and may even have personally experienced domestic violence that this gives them not just excellent insight but actual firsthand knowledge of Janay Rice's life. They know exactly what she's going through and what she should do about it.
In the wake of the Rice video clip's release yesterday, two hashtags have begun trending. One, #WhyIStayed, was created by writer Beverly Gooden as a forum to allow victims of domestic violence to tell their stories and explain why they remained in abusive relationships. She says her decision to form this impromptu online community was a response to the media coverage which seemed to be demanding to know why Janay Rice was staying in a relationship with a man who had hit her. She says that asking, "Why did she marry him?" or, "Why doesn't she leave?" is "a simple question for a very complex issue." Very true -- and some of the heartbreaking, courageous, and damn powerful responses being related as part of the topic right now bear this out. The other hashtag is the natural outgrowth of #WhyIStayed: #WhyILeft. Thousands of people are of course joining the two tags together and the result looks like this:
It's important to listen to many of these stories and the conversation is an invaluable one right now. At the risk of opening up Pandora's Box, though, if the overall inference we glean from this is that despite the difficulty she may have doing it, it's necessary for Janay Rice to wise-up and leave her relationship it raises the question: is that our culture attempting to speak for her when she's demanded that we not? A trending topic by its very nature represents a social trend and while certainly the puzzle pieces that make up #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft form a clear picture of how domestic violence often plays out, again, none of us is Janay Rice and therefore none of us can know with absolute clarity what her specific situation is or how she regards it. Certainly, her opinion of whether what happened to her in that elevator was right or wrong doesn't much matter; it was objectively, undeniably wrong. But as fucking disgusting as it was, what she wants to do about it is still her choice and even Beverly Gooden and several high-profile feminist writers recognize that we have no choice but to honor that.
The question I have is one of national narrative. You'll get zero argument that the overwhelming good it can do probably outweighs any conceivable reservations about thousands of people taking to Twitter to talk about a very serious problem -- and one that typically exists in the shadows. But despite its power to allow the average person to tell his or her story at a time like this, Twitter is also one of the mightiest engines for passing cultural judgment the world has ever seen and the narrative it's creating right now feels like it may actually be an extension of the mainstream media's attempts at doing Janay Rice's thinking for her. Put it this way: it's just as wrong for Janay Rice to have to one day answer to the millions of people who've reached their own conclusions on Twitter -- and those who see this as a potentially and necessarily seismic event -- as it is for her to have to satisfy the demands of idiots like vulturous outrage porn purveyor Jane Velez Mitchell, who last night on her show said that it looks like Janay is being held hostage.
Going by her statement to the public, Janay Rice is recognizing this or at the very least claiming it. I'm not saying we have to respect her wishes here, only that we have to recognize that no matter how many people may feel like they know exactly what Janay Rice is going through, the fact is that none of us do because none of us is Janay Rice.
You or I may think Ray Rice is an irredeemable piece of shit, but neither of us gets to make the decision to stay with him or leave him. Nor should we in any way be judging Janay Rice for what she does or doesn't do right now and going forward.