A culture of impunity

The greatest danger to our way of life is the culture of impunity we have created. It is an assault on truth and on 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 lawmaking bodies in the world, a copulating female dog.

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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.”

It is important to note that almost all of the demeaning remarks 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 fact that she is female and Hispanic.

Why did Yoho do what he did? Because he knew that he could get away with it. We live in a world where people who are responsible for genocide and other crimes against humanity are not 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 in our history, as does racism. The difference is that now we understand the damage we have done. We understand the infinite capacity of each person, regardless of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. We have made bold statements regarding human rights, we have defined genocide, we have 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 have seen numerous trials take place 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. In fact, a disproportionate number of the convictions to date have involved people from Africa. The ICC has not solved the issue of impunity which Ocasio-Cortez spoke about, nor has any other international body. We are not even close.

Perhaps the most important point to remember is that the Holocaust did not begin is gas chambers, it began with words. There are no exceptions to this pattern when it comes to the violation of human rights. Words are important because when words which demean others are spoken with impunity they lead to further infringements on our dignity.

At the same time, 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. Ted Yoho had every right to defend the policies being challenged by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but he also had a responsibility to respect her humanity.

We are all equal as human beings and we are 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.

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