Us & Them: Social Structure & the Laramie Project

It is easy to believe that it’s “us” and “them.”

That “they” are somehow inherently different than “we” are.

The individualistic identity that serves as the core of our society helps to foster and maintain inequality. If everyone is an individual, and all individuals are different, there is no thing, no structure to blame for the deaths by hate crime or the unequal life chances that litter our national news and saturate our culture.

Bad apples act as scapegoats—they let us blame the individual who picked up the gun, bought the knife, or lured the victim into the truck. As Phillip Zimbardo might say, the idea of bad apples lets our attention be drawn away from bad barrels that turn apples bad.

The myth of the rouge allows us to not see the way that we all contribute to systems of oppression. Inequality is structurally built-in. You can see it in the ways that minorities are represented throughout society.

For example:

Homosexuality is gendered, raced, classed, aged, oriented in certain bodies in mass media. Homosexuality is turned male, white, upper-middle class, young, nondisabled at the hands of Will & Grace and Glee. Homosexual men are denied action and subjectivity when they are commodified and turned into the neutered “GBF” or “Gay Best Friend;” the “best friend” to a heterosexual woman who cannot be whole without the company of a man.

The cultural stereotype of the Gay Best Friend maintains gendered inequality by placing the heterosexual woman in the center—her feelings, thoughts, and actions are the focus. Her friendship with a gay man signals both her progressiveness and the gay man’s supposedly non-masculine nature. The heterosexual woman remains the norm while male homosexuality is cast as effeminate, deviating from masculinity identified through male heterosexuality. Ironically, the Gay Best Friend is made nearly asexual because he is not shown on his own without his heterosexual, female “friend.” He is a support character—his whole purpose is to support his heterosexual, female “friend.”

This is a contemporary modification of Adrienne Rich’s “compulsory heterosexuality,” and it has ramifications throughout society.

Brandon White can attest to that. A couple months ago White was leaving a corner store when he was jumped by several men who savagely beat him. They recorded the encounter, and, in the recording they can be heard repeating slurs—slurs that focused on White’s perceived sexual orientation.

It would be easy to say that these young men who attacked White were just “bad apples.” That “they” aren’t a part of “us.” It would be easy, but it would be wrong.

White’s attackers, Matthew Shepard’s attackers all exist in the same cultural milieu that we live in. They took the idea of gender binaries, the same idea that allows a man to hold a door open for a woman but will not allow that same man to walk through a door held open by the same woman, and acted it out. They physically and individually punished someone who did not conform to that gender binary, the way that we, as a culture, punish non-heterosexuals by denying them full citizenship in humanity, by denying non-heterosexuals basic rights.

It would serve all of us well to not forget that the “them” we think of as a distinct category that serves as the gulf that keeps “them” separate from “us” is indiscriminate—it can just as easily be applied to Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson as it can be to Matthew Shepard. Who is “them?” Who is “us?” That depends on the barrel, that ever-elusive structure that is so hard to see because of the shortsighted value we place on the apple.

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