Grace Under Fire

At the time this photo of Kathrine Switzer was taken, Boston Marathon race manager Jock Semple genuinely believed she was doing something wrong and it was his place to stand up for what was right. It was 1967 and at that time women weren’t ‘officially’ banned from running the marathon, but this was due to an admin error as opposed to any desire for equality. Switzer went through the correct channels with her application, received her number and prepared to race. 

According to reports, Switzer was a few miles in when Semple began shouting, chased her and tried to grab her number. She was able to wriggle free when her running companions intervened and completed the race, albeit losing an hour or so from her estimated finish time.

We’re not in 1967 any more. Perhaps something more recent then.

In 1993 the man on the right of this photo actively campaigned for the execution of the man on the left. Although Jon Mark Byers manner was a little concerning, few tried to dissuade him. Surely, even in these reconstructed times, no one could condemn a father for wanting revenge on the man convicted of murdering his eight-year-old stepson and two of his friends? 

This photo was taken in 2012, less than twenty years later, at the Sundance premiere of The Devil’s Knot. If Byers’ fervent wish had been granted, Damien Echols would have been dispatched by an Arkansas penitentiary several years before and the matter would be closed.

Although divergent in motive, these two stories have one facet in common. Both protagonists, one pictured physically attacking a woman as she tried to compete in a marathon, the other filmed shooting pumpkins, ranting about Satan and threatening to shit on the graves of Echols and his cohorts, recanted their beliefs after a period of time had passed. Time and further information gave them perspective and, as most sentient beings can do, they realised the error in their ways.

The moral of this story is that human beings are fallible at best. At worst, we’re capable of atrocities. But time is a healer and an educator. Time offers the opportunity for introspection and redemption.

Happily, the atrocity people are few and far between. At least they used to be. It’s hard to tell mid-pandemic, with the leader of the free world imposing legislation that loses 545 kids in ‘the system’ and UK’s former Education Secretary claiming she voted against feeding school children in need because someone described her party as ‘scum’. Sparking cheery applause from some quarters.

This recent shuffle towards binary opinion (partly attributable to an algorithmic feedback loop; a whole other essay) at least helps us to understand who is trying their best and who is pursuing an agenda. Who is prepared to follow their own logic blindly to the point where they’re endorsing the state allowing children to go hungry, for example. Indeed, while the socials are a bear pit at the best of times, wilful in their evasion of nuanced discussion, ordinary people do have the option to call leaders of the highest level to account. Sometimes it even works.

As with most things that confer a sense of power, we’ve become overconfident and weaponised it. As I trawled through my weekly podcast list (another three hours of Ted Bundy thanks to @DoGoOnPod, cheers guys) I ended up dwelling upon Amanda Palmer’s chat with Laura Jane Grace during The Art of Asking Everything. As a big fan of Laura’s band Against Me!, I’d been looking forward to the episode for a while. The section about creating music ‘under his eye’, so to speak, was particularly fascinating to me as someone who packed it in because the pressure of being female in a very male-dominated environment eroded my already fragile self-confidence to a useless nub. It made me feel good to hear that other women had been able to work around that vertiginous wall of condescension and antipathy. That it didn’t break them. It might have ended there.

Then I saw Amanda’s post the following day.

something hurt me and also made me think yesterday. this is me and laura jane grace on the day we recorded our conversation for “the art of asking everything” podcast – march 2019. it’s now out and you can listen to it anywhere you get your podcasts. laura posted this beautiful hug photo by hayley fiasco up on her feed yesterday.

and…i read the comments.

there are people who do not like laura; they think her choices are problematic. and… there are people who don’t like me; they think my choices are problematic.

what i find hilarious – and painful – is the cartoon of this moment: where laura’s fans can simultaneously be saying “omg don’t talk to amanda she’s hella problematic” while mine can be saying “omg don’t talk to laura she’s hella problematic”. it is very 7th grade.

If you google ‘Amanda Palmer’, you’ll find at least 107 examples of why she’s a terrible person. There are lists. And yes, many of her artistic decisions have not aged well or been considerate to the sensitivities of others. But the frequency with which Palmer is challenged over those decisions is oddly repetitive and orchestrated in a way that encourages one to question whether all this is about more than inviting people to play at her shows for beer and high fives.

Palmer is visible in a way that most artists aren’t. In 2012, she became the first musician to raise more than a million dollars for a project on Kickstarter. Three years later, she pivoted to Today, fifteen thousand people pledge a monthly sum to fund her creativity. In return, they receive a piece of art. 

Her fatal mistake was having faith in herself.  If fifteen thousand of you pledged money to me for my art, I would of course collapse beneath the weight of your expectation and have to give it all back, all the while apologising for being crap and snot crying all over your top. This is the correct way to behave.

Palmer apparently missed this meeting, felt the frisson of artistic freedom and set about living the dream.

Western culture doesn’t enjoy proud, motivated women. I learned this early and often, and experienced it in and around dusty stages in armpit venues across the UK. The two guys who played in the band I joined would find themselves surrounded by eager fans after shows, basking in congratulations and beer. I was largely left to my own devices unless I broke my ‘staring into the middle distance trying not to shit myself‘ facade, which I later learned ‘intimidated people’. I vividly recall an occasion when I threw one of my guitars across a stage in a fit of petulance that surprised even me. I was met by a crowd of what felt like twenty-five as I disembarked, half of which apparently believed I’d suffered a breakdown that required intervention. They thought I was unhinged and needed managing. I was just trying to find room to fucking breathe.

You might argue I’m giving Palmer a free pass because I like her. That’s ok. You’re free to do so. But if you’d like to run with that, at least take down the particulars.

Through her conversations with various people, particularly Laura Jane Grace, I’ve found comfort in the similarities I see between us. A little aspirational on my part (particularly if you’ve heard me play the piano) but it makes me wonder. What might I have become, had anxiety not forced me at gunpoint off the stage and replaced my guitar with a keyboard? Like Amanda? Little girls don’t lose the stars in their eyes when they become women, you know. They just learn to conceal them more effectively.

If that had been my path, I know I would have been cancelled a million times too. I’m capable of the most egregious foul-ups on an hourly basis. I’ve spent my life on the edge trying to force my way in, only to be expelled because I don’t fit. I’m too loud, too quiet, too opinionated, a fence sitter… you name it. I get it wrong all the time. 

What keeps me alive is the knowledge that with each passing moment, I learn and improve. I read a piece I wrote barely three years ago the other day and was utterly astonished that I’d interpreted the subject matter so badly. That I’d had sufficient faith in myself to not only form the opinion but to commit it to the internet, where anyone could read it and judge me on that basis alone.

Imagine what exists out there that I haven’t remembered yet…

The internet compresses time and forgets nothing. Human beings live every second and our minds are like litmus, changing dramatically due to stimuli and environment. One person’s poor decision is the next person’s declaration of ideological war. Once, time passed and perspectives changed, perhaps due to regret, a response to hostile reaction, circumstance or merely an opportunity to engage with and educate oneself about the matter in hand. 

There’s so much to worry about in the world today, it’s no wonder people pick easy targets to vent their fear and frustration towards. It’s normal and it’s healthy, particularly during times of significant structural change and failure of leadership. 

Being human and carrying with it all the frailties that brings in the 21st century is rapidly becoming something to be ashamed of. Instead of picking up the flaws of other people and parading them around on our backs, perhaps we should focus more on allowing those frailties to reach their natural conclusion. Allow people the space to make mistakes. 

A few years ago, aside from war and starvation, the technological singularity was humanity’s biggest threat. In case you were busy elsewhere, the singularity is described thusly on Wikipedia: 

a hypothetical point in time at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilization.

‘Unforeseeable changes to human civilisation’, you say? What, like cheerily voting blonde megalomaniacs into power even though their policies make the majority worse off but we’re too busy trying to die on a hill because someone’s being a dickhead on Twitter?

To err is human, to forgive, divine, wrote Alexander Pope in his ‘Essay on Criticism’, presumably in anticipation of shade he later received from Lord Byron and Joseph Warton.

I’m about two hundred and fifty years too late with this plea now, aren’t I? Might as well still post it. What could possibly go wrong?


2 thoughts on “Grace Under Fire

  1. I don’t care how many mistakes – real or imagined – you May have made.

    You have inspired me – a woman who seems herself “an artist of life and words,” who has felt the brunt of male authoritarianism for the bulk of my adult life, who now faces what may as well be considered as common as a cold (cancer, in case you hadn’t guessed) and will now brave the madness of the accepted medicine gods in favor of my life, my way, as a *woman*…!!

    So, right or wrong, mistakes (PLEASE!!) or none, you’ve done something “good,” Kelly.

    (And Amanda, too, since her Facebook post led me here this Sunday morning while I’m avoiding my parents’ home-style Christian church services.)

    We’re humans, the best tool-makers on the planet – so far as we know. And we’re bound to make mistakes, and lots of them.

    I’m okay with this.

    Because, it’s the humanness that’s inspires me, the willingness to OPENLY make mistakes.

    Thank you, both.

    I love you, right or wrong, for who and what you are.

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