The greatest danger to our way of life is the culture of impunity we’ve created. It’s an assault on truth and human dignity.
This became very clear in a discourse between two members of the American House of Representatives.
Ted Yoho verbally accosted and demeaned Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for expressing her views on controversial issues and for bringing to light instances of corruption and exploitation in the American economic and political systems.
Yoho concluded his rant by using common slang to call her, a person chosen to represent the people of her constituency in one of the most powerful law-making bodies in the world, a copulating female dog.
In defending himself, Yoho read a prepared speech where he not only denied Ocasio-Cortez’s accusation (which was heard by several other people), he, for some reason, pointed out that he was a husband and a father of two daughters.
To this, Ocasio-Cortez stated, “This issue is not about one incident. It is cultural. It is a culture of … impunity, of accepting of violence and violent language against women, and an entire structure of power that supports that. … Dehumanizing language is not new and what we are seeing is that incidences like these are happening in a pattern … (demonstrating) an attitude towards women and dehumanization of others.”
Almost all of the demeaning remarks made against Ocasio-Cortez over the years by powerful people in politics and the media have had nothing to do with her stand on controversial issues. They have been directed at the facts that she’s female and Hispanic.
Why did Yoho do what he did?
Because he knew he could get away with it.
We live in a world where people who are responsible for genocide and other crimes against humanity aren’t held accountable, while our prisons are full of people who would be better served by more effective social and educational programs.
Misogyny goes back thousands of years, as does racism. The difference is that now we understand the damage we’ve done. We understand the infinite capacity of each person, regardless of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.
We’ve made bold statements regarding human rights, we’ve defined genocide, we’ve said “never again.” Yet we continue to make excuses for powerful people and we willingly forgive their transgressions.
There has been some progress. Since the end of the Cold War, we’ve witnessed numerous trials in the International Criminal Court (ICC), which focuses on crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. And there have been important convictions.
The ICC has also expanded the definition of these crimes to include rape and sexual violence.
Yet there have been no convictions of people from powerful countries, despite their involvement in such crimes, whether direct or indirect. A disproportionate number of the convictions have involved people from Africa.
The ICC hasn’t solved the issue of impunity that Ocasio-Cortez spoke about, nor has any other international body. We’re not even close.
The Holocaust didn’t begin in gas chambers, it began with words. There are no exceptions to this pattern when it comes to the violation of human rights. When words that demean others are spoken with impunity, they lead to further infringements on our dignity.
Freedom of speech is vital to the effective functioning of any society. With every freedom, however, comes responsibility. This is what we too often forget.
Yoho had every right to defend the policies being challenged by Ocasio-Cortez. But he also had a responsibility to respect her humanity.
We’re all equal as humans and we’re all responsible for our words. This is the sacred foundation of every just society. When we lose sight of it, we put ourselves in peril.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.