Everyone’s been talking about the Neda video that’s been making the rounds lately. I shan’t post it here, for reasons that will rapidly become clear, but you can find it easily enough if you Google around. I have no strong opinion as to whether one “must” watch it, which you’ll find most of the breathless commentary accompanying the video urges everyone to do. I firmly believe that if it has not yet occurred to you that what is happening on the ground in Iran is really happening to real people, it is unclear to me that this would knock you out of your complacency.
But I don’t condemn anyone for posting and distributing it. Kate Harding sums my position up in this Broadsheet post quite beautifully. (Tami’s post at Racialicious is also great on this subject, pointing out that the way this video gets talked about is so different from the way videos of American/white suffering are treated.)
My teeth have nonetheless been set on edge throughout this construction of a martyr by Tweet and camera phone. It’s not that I question the authenticity of the video, or the tragedy of the situation. It’s that when you make a person into a martyr, even when you declare them a hero, you are replacing them with an idea of who they are and what they did.
We know that Neda was a philosophy student, and that she was possibly engaged. Beyond that, what we know mostly about her is that she was standing on a street at the wrong time on the wrong day and was shot. We know that her death is shocking to us when we watch it. Thus the vast majority of what we know about her from this incident are not things we know about her, per se; they are things we know about us.
And in that little maneuver, in that small erasure of the person because she’s more useful to us when her existence proves a point, you can undermine the entire point of anti-oppression work. Either human beings are human beings, or they are ciphers for grand ideas. And when someone is demoted to the status of stand-in for Progress or Democracy or Liberation, however laudable those goals might be, I don’t think you can call what you are doing anti-oppressive work.
My position here feels somewhat hypocritical. I may dislike martyr narratives, but I certainly have heroes. I’m far too addicted to the pull of a good story to leave them behind entirely. But what I try to keep in mind is that my heroes were and are just human beings. Like me, they were at the best of times perhaps half-aware of what they want and need and have to do. We have to stop feeling that any of us – and I do mean any of us – is more deserving of full human status in order to make sure that none of us get less than that.
So when Ta-Nehisi reminds me that the FBI taped MLK, Jr. yelling “I’m not a Negro tonight!” mid-coitus, I temper my disappointment with a reminder that these are the things we need to know if we are going to work towards a world where we are more fully human. When Dworkin says something that stops me in my tracks, I try not to let my adulation in other contexts get the best of me, but I also try not to let disappointment discard both baby and bathwater. And when I fuck up (and oh I can fuck up hard, at the best of times) I remind myself that everyone who has ever been interested in ending oppression has ended up stepping in it – and that the important part is not to give up in the name of some unattainable claim to perfection that I have constructed for someone else.