by Merle Hoffman
The Congressman arrived flushed with triumph. He had just been part of the victorious vote on the law to ban assault rifles. It was an auspicious beginning, for ON THE ISSUES publisher Merle Hoffman had invited John Lewis (D-GA) and feminist activist, author, and novelist Andrea Dworkin to talk about violence in American society and the links between the black civil rights and feminist movements.
During the height of the civil rights movement (1963-1966), John Lewis was arrested 40 times and beaten by mobs. He was a founder and the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1977, he was appointed director of the federal volunteer agency, ACTION, and in 1986, elected to Congress, where he serves as Chief Deputy Majority Whip and sits on the influential Steering and Policy Committee.
Andrea Dworkin’s books Intercourse (1987) and Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981) broke new ground in the understanding of male power and women’s sub ordination. Her recent works include Mercy, a novel about rape, and Letters From A War Zone, a collection of speeches and essays. She coauthored the first law recognizing pornography as a violation of the civil rights of women.
DWORKIN: John, I don’t have too many heroes but you are one to me. I remember reading about you on the Freedom Rides when I was a teenager. Then I became active with the War Resisters League and the Student Peace Union and knew people there who had worked with you. I thought you were really brave. There are so many political issues now around violence that I deal with -and the women’s movement really owes so much to the civil rights movement -that I thought we could talk about violence as a political issue. I wanted to ask you about those early days in the Deep South, what you did down there, and how you felt then in a situation where there was an enormous amount of violence.
LEWIS: You must keep in mind that I grew up in the segregated south, in a very large, very, very poor family in rural Alabama. My father was a sharecropper, a tenant farmer. In 1944, he had saved $300, and with that he bought 110 acres of land. I was four years old and it was my responsibility to care for the chickens. I fell in love with raising the chickens, and I think my whole pilgrimage to nonviolence came through failing in love and raising those chickens. I saw them as sort of innocent creatures that needed to be sheltered and protected. I grew up with the idea of becoming a minister, and from time to time my cousins and I would gather all of my chickens, 100 or 200, and I would preach to the chickens. As I often say today, they never said “Amen” but at times they would bow their heads.
When my mother or father would try to kill a chicken for a meal, or try to sell one, it made me very, very sad. I would protest, I wouldn’t eat, I wouldn’t talk to my parents, I would go on a strike. I think that was my first introduction to nonviolence, not just toward human beings, but to the creatures of our environment. You don’t go out just killing or harming people, animals, or things.
HOFFMAN: I see a very strong connection between feminism and animal rights in terms of what I call a radical sense of compassion. Is that what you mean when you talk of a beloved community?
LEWIS: By all means. Why is it that all at once we are facing so much violence in this society? I really believe that in our own country, the greatest need is for a revolution of values -a revolution in the minds and hearts of people. I happen to believe that in every human being there is a spark of something that is greater than any of us. No one has the right to abuse or destroy that divine spark. But it’s not just hitting someone. The way you look at someone or stare also can be damaging and hurtful. That’s why I believe in the philosophy of nonviolence, not simply as a technique but as a way of life. The end must be caught up in the means. You cannot separate the two.
DWORKIN: For me, this is a question of tremendous personal moral crisis. I have believed in and followed the path of nonviolence for a very long time, from the time when I was young, partly influenced by you and by the way that your courage spoke to me when I was a teenager, and with many other pacifists, standing up against the Vietnam War.
In the last ten years, I have had a real crisis around this issue of violence and I can’t come to terms with it. I see women being raped on a level of frequency and with a kind of sadism that is increasingly horrible. And I see women being beaten in their own homes, so that for us it’s not even a question of “Are the streets safe?” because most of us are killed in our own homes. And I see an almost complete devaluation of the worth of women -on the marketplace, through pornography, through prostitution and an attitude that women are almost subhuman- and a belief that men seem to have that they have a right to control women, to control access to women’s bodies, on a visceral level. It has become impossible for me to tolerate the way the law is not working for women, not operating on behalf of women.
I have come to believe that the only way to stop a rapist, a wife beater, may be to kill him. If the society does not react to the violence that women experience as if it’s an emergency, then a woman has to find a way to stop that man herself.
LEWIS: There has been so much violence against women in particular because our society is so male-oriented, and male-dominated. You know male chauvinism was at its worst during the early days of the civil rights movement. But during the latter part of the movement, we started trying to practice what we were preaching. If you preached equality, you have to live by your creed. Without women, the early movement would have been like a bird without wings, really. And women didn’t get a lot of credit.
But now you have more women in Congress who are standing up and saying discrimination is wrong. They are educating men and having an impact. Violence is vicious; it destroys the self worth of a person. You are right that the media and society have done things that are degrading women. Men have to be willing to stand up and say, this woman is my mother, my wife, my sister, my daughter, my aunt. She’s another human being.
DWORKIN: But the situation of women seems to be almost the opposite of what you’re saying. When you look at violence against women, you find that most of it is in the circle of those close relationships, in an environment that we call love.
LEWIS: Yes. I have seen it firsthand. When I was growing up, I had an uncle who was the meanest man. He was good to the community, the nicest human being you ever wanted to meet, but mean and vicious to his wife. He engaged in incredible physical violence. I always wondered why she just didn’t leave, why she didn’t take a piece of wood and just knock him in the head. But she stayed and took the abuse; apparently she didn’t have any place to go. And it broke my heart.
HOFFMAN: So why shouldn’t she have taken that piece of wood? We are not talking about premeditated violence; we’re talking about violence that’s in self-defense.
DWORKIN: The fact is that when women leave relationships, they are most at risk of being killed. And most women know that; that’s one of the reasons that women stay.
LEWIS: I consider myself a pacifist and I detest violence. But at some point, you have to cross that line. In November 1992, right after the election, I took a Congressional delegation to ”Somalia where I saw hundreds and thousands of people die. I saw little babies literally dying in their mother’s arms. That’s when I said we have to intervene. And that was the first time that I’ve said to our government, you’ve got to send troops, to save people, to keep people from killing other people.
DWORKIN: I now think of myself as a failed pacifist, a lapsed pacifist. I see situation after situation where women are almost wrong not to use violence, not to stop the man in his tracks. He won’t stop himself and the legal system won’t stop him. Society leaves the woman isolated, to deal with his aggression, on her own, through whatever means she can manage.
LEWIS: I don’t have the answer, but I do think that sometimes we have to use radical non-violence. You have to be aggressive. At one point during the days of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, there was a group of women who suggested that they would not have sex with the people in SNCC, or within the movement, if they didn’t give them a role to play.
HOFFMAN: What happened? Did they do it?
LEWIS: Changes took place. One of my former colleagues said something that I thought was very demeaning and very derogatory about women, something that no one in a leadership position or no male in his right mind should ever say. He said that the position for women in the movement was a prone position.
DWORKIN: It’s a very famous, often repeated remark.
LEWIS: Too many males in our society see women only in that light. That they’re something to be used and abused. We have to change that mind set. We need something very radical. What’s happening in American society is that we have almost become immune.
DWORKIN: Yes. There’s a level of desensitization, to pain, to other people’s suffering, and the acceptance of dehumanization. When people are put in an inferior status in society they need to be dehumanized, otherwise people can’t feel superior to them. I mean that’s part of that process of hating people and making them subjugated. It seems that a sense of superiority and a feeling that the woman is an object is part of what men need to be with women sexually. So the fight for humanizing -women’s assertions of humanity; in the society- is always taken as some kind of personal intimate sexual feuding with men. And the concept of equality between men and women -and that equality can be real and not just social policy, but also in personal and intimate relationships- doesn’t even seem to register in the minds of most people. It’s very frustrating.
You have a political movement that is so worried about making men more angry. Women are already being punished so much in their personal lives, or when they\walk down the street, or by the unofficial curfew of not being able to go out after dark. The thought of making men angrier is something that keeps women from asserting our rights. I used to think that women who have been raped should get little buttons saying, “I have done my national service. Leave me alone.”
HOFFMAN: Or a button saying: “I’ve been incested. I have given already.”
DWORKIN: Yes, and this is the one day that I would like to sit on this bench and read this book and not be bothered. I only get one day in my lifetime, this is it, today, now. So, please, today leave me alone.
HOFFMAN: When anyone can trespass your boundaries, you are not perceived as an individual with human dignity. The definition of masculinity continues to be one that’s laden with violence; it’s sometimes laden with misogyny. How do you change that?
LEWIS: I think as a people, we’ve got to say that we are all in this thing together. We’re all in the same boat. We’ve got to lay down the burden of race, we’ve got to lay down the burden of sex. And I’m not so sure that we’re prepared as a nation and as a society to make that great leap.
HOFFMAN: Because it functions, doesn’t it? That burden of race and sex functions to divide and conquer, and keep the established power structure intact.
DWORKIN: People who put other people down get something from it. How do you take that away from them without robbing them? I think it’s a question of asserting one’s rights. On college campuses, women are strong and active and they organize against sexual violence in a way that is equality-directed. It doesn’t have to do strictly with some kind of law-and-order attitude. It has to do with, we understand that this is being done to us to keep us down, and we don’t want to be kept down anymore and therefore, we’re going to fight it and do something about it. Take Back the Night marches, for instance, focus precisely on that kind of assertion of dignity, an assertion of rights. But there are many men who take great pleasure in putting women down and keeping women down. So much of the problem, I think, is that if a woman is sexualized in any way to them, then they have a right of control. For instance, the law once allowed a married man to rape his wife. We’ve changed that, but now we see new ways of trying to terrorize women developing -like stalking. Women are being terrorized by men who fixate on them and then, basically, hunt them. And to me, the pornography industry has a lot to do with the way women are being increasingly dehumanized, even as we’re trying to assert our humanity towards having equal rights.
HOFFMAN: So your work on the Anti-Pornography Civil Rights Ordinance is a way of institutionalizing that change?
DWORKIN: Well, the ordinance recognizes that pornography is a violation of women’s civil rights. It came out of 20 years of hearing from women about the role that pornography has played in sexual abuse, in sexual harassment on the job, in domestic violence. And so what we tried to do in Minneapolis, where this bill was developed, was to give people hurt by pornography a cause of action, a way of going into court and holding the pornographers and profiteers responsible for what they are doing to people to make that money. It’s not any kind of censorship issue, it’s not prior restraint. But it does say, “If you hurt a human being when you do this, you’re going to pay for it.”
LEWIS: I support that effort. That’s what we had to do in the civil rights movement.
DWORKJN: I think the civil rights movement showed the world that the concept of human dignity is not an abstract idea. It has to be real when you walk into a public place, it has to be real in the way that you can make your living. It has to be real in the way that people talk to you; it has to be real in a way that affects your self-regard. The classic civil rights struggle was around the ways in which African-Americans were excluded from the body politic in the US and were excluded from the experience of human dignity.
LEWIS: Right. We were visible, but invisible. And that’s the way women have been treated. Blacks, African-Americans, became objects in a sense, to be used, to be abused. Women are subjected to that same status in American society. As participants in the civil rights movement, we African Americans had to make ourselves visible. During the 1960’s, there was a lot of dirt and filth under the American rug, in the cracks -and in the corner and people didn’t see it. So we had to do something. By dramatizing the evil of segregation and racial discrimination, by dramatizing the denial of human dignity, we made ourselves visible and then you had the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and that type of thing. Now in 1994, as we move toward the 21st century; women have to become more visible. They have to bring the dirt out of the bedroom, out of the closet, and let people see it. So, we are no longer invisible.
DWORKIN: And the visibility includes, then, the fact that when somebody goes into court and says, “I have been hurt in this and this and this way,” they suddenly also have speech that’s visible. So I thank you for your support of the ordinance, because it does seem to me that there is an apathy developing out of some kind of fear. People seem terribly afraid of change. They seem terrified -they seem to feel things can only get worse. That nothing can ever get better. That nothing is ever a chance for those who have been hurt to say the ways in which they have been hurt and to try to get the society to redress the grievance.
And I really believe that the most marginalized women in our society are those who are or who have been in prostitution, who are usually kids who have run away from home, who were sexually abused as children, and who, of course, come from poverty, not from wealth. This is the population that the pornographers exploit, primarily, in making their product.
And then their product gets used on women, especially in the home, which is this dangerous place for women to be. And so, we have no homes. I mean, we’re kind of the ultimate homeless population. You look to the law to set the standard for the kind of human community you want to create. What equality is going to be. What it is that you absolutely do not have a right to subject other people to.
HOFFMAN: Aside from the legislative process, how do you get a spiritual sense of values to the country again? Because I truly believe that we’ve lost it, if we ever had it. How do you bring that back?
LEWIS: When you hurt another person, you are hurting yourself. It’s a type of self-hatred. Because to deny someone else their own humanity, you’re almost denying your own humanity. It’s a lack of what I call self respect, self worth and as you suggested, you’ve got to be in charge, you’ve got to be superior. You’ve got to have power. You’ve got to control somebody.
HOFFMAN: We’re looking at a society that only gains power through the diminution of others. How does that begin to change?
LEWIS: Through the whole question of community -that we live in a community. That we’re not alone, that we’re in this boat together, we’re family. I don’t mean family in the traditional sense, I mean the human family.
HOFFMAN: A few books have been written recently about middle class black rage, talking mainly about male rage. What is happening there?
LEWIS: I think there is a feeling that we have made it to this point and we cannot go any further. It’s similar to what women call the glass ceiling. And so you have a growing sense of despair among black middle-class males and among young blacks, in particular.
HOFFMAN: I understand you’re involved in the Coalition for Soviet Jewry and you have disavowed Khalid Abdul Muhammed, I believe, and Louis Farrakhan. That must have taken a lot of courage to stand up to.
LEWIS: Well, I think that the great majority of my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus have said we will not have an agreement with Mr. Muhammed or Mr. Farrakhan. During the 60’s, I saw blacks and Jews shedding their blood together, dying together. There was a sense of solidarity. And any time you see racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, sexism, or people putting someone down because of their religious beliefs or because of sexual orientation, you have to speak out. And you must isolate that from the society. And you just can’t speak out -you have to live it.
DWORKIN: So you continue to take a very activist stance. In other words, you don’t feel constrained by being in Congress.
LEWIS: No, not at all. I don’t think I have changed that much. I think, if anything, my resolve has been strengthened, to do what I can, to remove the lies, scars, stains, and hates from the society And every opportunity I get, I speak out.
DWORKIN: I wanted to ask you what you feel it did to you to experience violence. Does it still have an impact on you?
LEWIS: From time to time, I still feel the violence that I became a victim of. Some of the scars may not be visible, but I still have many of the invisible scars. From time to time, I wonder how could people be so mean. How could people be so vicious? To inflict violence against another human being, another group of citizens simply because they wanted to participate in a democratic process? I just wanted to be treated like a human being.
One of the reasons I detest violence so much is that I saw so much of it during the ’60’s. Brown’s Beach on the Freedom Rides in Montgomery in the year of 1961, I really thought I was going to die. I was bleeding from my head and at one point I was unconscious. But I came through that experience, really, not hating anybody. I saw that people that engaged in this violence are also victims, really. Victims of a vicious and evil and cruel system. I was invisible, I was an object, I was a symbol, some black person, and they saw me as a threat to their way of life.
HOFFMAN: When you say they are victims, that doesn’t absolve them of their responsibility for their actions.
LEWIS: No, it does not. But maybe these acts of violence appealed to the conscience of a group of people who later took action. Now, when I go back to Selma or back to Montgomery, and I run into some of these people, they say, “We’re sorry.”
DWORKIN: But there’s a difference between violence that’s public and violence that’s private. The shock of violence to women in the home, for instance, is that it takes place in the home.
LEWIS: And it’s somebody that you know, somebody that you trust.
DWORKIN: It takes a great deal of empathy to understand that your public social enemy is acting out of ignorance and is acting out of a kind of spiritual poverty, and that that can be changed. I don’t know what it takes when you are in the one relationship in which you are supposed to be the most known. There is something so impersonal in the experience of being beaten as a wife. And to be denied your own humanity in the most intimate of relationships is devastating.
HOFFMAN: John, you spoke almost in terms of a sacrificial concept. In other words, some of my blood that was shed, hopefully will elevate the consciousness of those around and then be for the good of the movement.
LEWIS: Yes, and that’s different. In the cause of a movement, you make a choice to put your life on the line.
HOFFMAN: When you marry, you don’t choose to put your life on the line.
LEWIS: That’s right. Political activists make the decision. You prepared yourself, you became disciplined in the philosophy and the techniques and tactics of nonviolence, to be willing to put yourself, your body, in a movement. We used to talk about putting your body on the line for the movement, for the cause.
HOFFMAN: These women’s bodies are on the line for no good reason, except that they’re there.
DWORKIN: If you’re battered you think you’re alone. One of the important things for a political movement to do is to let you know that you’re not alone. If you’re battered and you ask for help, nobody will help you -or help you enough- and then you think that not only are you alone, but nothing you say means anything to anyone or makes any sense. And you start to feel as if you don’t even exist, because you can’t convince anyone that you matter.
LEWIS: I think part of the problem is the mindset of so many men in places of responsibility, in positions of power. There need to be more women in powerful and responsible positions who can use the resources at their hands to make a difference.
HOFFMAN: Andrea, why haven’t those individual experiences of pain motivated women to come together collectively, and put all their bodies on the line to make these kind of changes? That’s what happened in the civil rights movement.
DWORKIN: The way women are situated in society is almost exactly the opposite of the way African Americans were to white people, which is to say, we’re not segregated -in a sense we are almost forcibly integrated.
Women run the gamut in personalities, capabilities, and possibilities, but we’re really socialized to compete with each other for men. And to overcome that, to have a communal solidarity is hard. The way we’re socialized, including sexual abuse, breaks us into pieces inside. We try to fix it but maybe fixing is not what we need to do. Maybe we need to let all the broken parts sort of shake around a little and make a little bit of noise.
Many women believe that they are being hurt because the person who is hurting them has been insufficiently loved and that if that person is loved enough, that person will stop -and that’s not the case. Why doesn’t this country commit real resources to making women’s lives safe? Is it that many of the men who control those resources still have this contempt toward women?
We are visible, but not seen. And visible always when we are at our most vulnerable, most naked, most degraded, most…with our legs spread open, I mean, literally, when we don’t even have the defenses of our own body posture to protect us. Women will not admit how afraid they are of men. And so there’s a kind of stance of, you know, “I’m a woman, I’m free, I’m for equal rights.” But that draws a line beyond which women won’t go, because they will not face the fear that they experience, and therefore, that they cannot overcome.
HOFFMAN: And women don’t really connect with each other. There are major philosophical and class fault lines within the women’s or feminist movement. Pornography is a major one; abortion is another; homosexuality is another. So women themselves divide and conquer and don’t coalesce. So how can we get these two movements to have a communal agenda?
LEWIS: I think we have to reveal a coalition that transcends sex, race, class, all of them. Because there are people in America that are being dehumanized. And we have to find a way to dramatize it so people can see it, people can feel it. They felt Selma. The American people couldn’t stand seeing innocent people being trampled with horses and beaten with night sticks. And we have to find a way, even in Congress, even in the ‘White House, the city halls, the state capitols, the board rooms, to sensitize, to make people feel it in their guts.
I think we have to organize and keep organizing. We don’t rally anymore. We don’t rock any more. We don’t march anymore. We don’t stir up hell anymore. This country is too quiet and the world is passing us by. We need to agitate.
DWORKIN: I think that the dignity of the people in South Africa, and the dignity of the leadership there, the magnanimity of their souls, has been a real lesson for all of us who thought that it’s not possible to remain deeply human when being so horribly oppressed. I feel that the women’s movement came directly out of the civil rights movement, sometimes in opposition to the male chauvinism of the civil rights movement, but also that it continues with the same goals that the civil rights movement had. Very inadequate sometimes, in being able to say what those goals are, with very impoverished means to confront society in a way that will make our meaning clear.
But I also find myself in a women’s movement that refuses to do what is necessary. It wants to settle for the few gains for the few professional woman that made them. Still, the women’s movement now is certainly an international movement.
HOFFMAN: Oh, absolutely.
DWORKIN: Yet in every country of the world, we see women who really think it’s all right to have women on street corners selling themselves. They insist on defining that for us as an example of choice, instead of it being an example of what happens when you have been deprived of human sovereignty from the time you were a child. And that causes me great despair. But I think that what the Congressman is saying is very important and I just hope that women will listen. Because you don’t make change without sacrifice.
LEWIS: Frederick Douglass said that in 1857: “There can be no progress without agitation.” You’ve got to make some noise, you got to be willing to move. You cannot get lost. You cannot stay still. You have to have hope and you got to stay in motion. You cannot become bitter, you cannot become hostile. Women have got to continue to push. Life is a constant struggle. It shouldn’t be. But it is a constant struggle.
I speak a great deal about the beloved community. And it’s not here yet, maybe it’s in the process, but it’s going to take more than one year, a few years. It may take a lifetime, but we’ve all got to continue to work on it.
DWORKIN: How did you deal with the factional fighting inside the movement?
LEWIS: I saw these friends, brothers, and sisters as part of a large family. You have some of your most bitter disagreements and conflicts with the people you’re closest to. You don’t necessarily fall out with them. You maybe fall out for a day, a week, a long month, or maybe a year. But somehow, in some way, you have to reconnect. You don’t have the luxury of being divided. And so you regroup and you rebuild and you move on. And in some coalitions, you work on those things that you can agree on and then maybe you have to drop someone here and pick someone else up and go on the next mile, down this long revolving or evolving rambling road. It’s like keeping your eyes on the prize; you just keep on, keep going.
In the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, we used to say, you go through this period, you go through this phase, you bring people to the point they can come and they may not be able to make the next step, maybe around this bend. And you may have to leave some people at this point, and maybe they will catch on later and maybe they won’t.
HOFFMAN: But you keep going. You keep going.
LEWIS: You hang in there, you don’t give up. You don’t get lost in the sea of despair. You just keep going. And I tell you the journey that I’ve been on has been an incredible journey. You know, you have the high places and the low places. You have the bitter moments and the sweet moments. But the changes that I have seen up here in Washington are just unreal, unbelievable.
If someone had told me in 1963, when I was speaking at the March on Washington here when I was 23 years old or when I was being beaten on the bridge in Selma in 1965 when I was 25, that one day I would be in Congress, in the leadership of the House, a Chief Deputy Majority Whip, that I would have an opportunity to go to South Africa and meet with Chief Buthelezi, Nelson Mandela, and then President Frederik de Klerk, and go back as an honored guest at their inaugural -I would have said you’re crazy, you’re out of your mind, you don’t know what you’re talking about. So, I think that change is possible. You don’t give up! And women must not give up! Just keep pushing. We have lost something in America. And maybe, maybe, just maybe, the rest of the world is going to teach us something. Because it was Arnold Toynbee who wrote: “It may be the Negro that takes a message of nonviolence to the Western world.” The world was mesmerized by what happened in South Africa. People by the hundreds, by the thousands, by the millions, wanted to vote -in spite of the violence. They wanted to participate. We saw old women being pushed in a wheelbarrow to a polling place. We saw an old man coming on the back of his son to vote. We saw a person saying, “I voted. Now I can die. I can go home now.” Maybe, maybe, just maybe, it will be South Africa, whites and blacks and coloreds, taking this whole idea of a multiracial family to the rest of the world.
Merle HOFFMAN: is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.