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Not Just Another Number

Not too long ago I was reading A Language Older Than Words by Derrick Jensen. It was prompted by an interview with him that I’d read on Democracy Now, and I do not regret hunting it down in the library. The book reads like a conversation one might have with an esteemed professor over a steaming cup of strong coffee in the dead of winter – soothing, nourishing, and due to end all too soon.

My opinion of him could only have improved with direct contact to pick the brain of this newfound inspiration of mine, so I promptly fired off an email. After a couple of exchanges, I was more than a little awestruck (I imagine this is how my mother would feel if she got to meet Madonna in person). Here was an award-winning activist, author of several books basically putting published words to ideas I have been quietly harbouring all through my formative years and never found the words for, and by the sounds of all I’ve read, practising what he preaches so he lives a life aligned with his values (how many of us can claim that?), humouring little old me with a response.

The predominant theme of the book, as I understood it to be, was about the culture of violence that permeates our society, leading to exploitation of resources, damaging our ability to relate to one another, and the silencing of victims. It forces one to question the fundamental aspects of life in an individualistic, wealth-driven (See: The Cost of Mankind’s Future), ethnocentric reality of today. When all is said and done, it’s still a white man’s world, so it seems.

The shocking statistic when it came to abuse of women and children was harder to comprehend than he claimed it to be in the book – I truly looked at the number as a statistic, turned it first into a percentage, then a ratio, then a decimal, but still it remained a number. I turned the page, promising to create some meaning out of it later on. It was no small irony then, that I was physically assaulted at work, and as fate would have it, on the day that Mr Jensen would have been celebrating his birthday.

It happened very early on a Sunday morning. At twenty-five to eight, I was well over an hour into my shift and had offered to do the bakery run for the office. Walking down the sheltered corridor extending from the office to the main street, wallet in hand, I had no warning when a blow to the back of my head sent me flying forward and I face-planted it. My glasses knocked off, I was stunned and momentarily blinded.

Anger kicked in, and retrieving my glasses, I picked myself up and turned to see a figure running down the corridor. I picked myself up and ran after him, in my boots and tight work skirt and all, and my attacker was shocked enough to turn around, and started running faster. Being a runner, I closed the distance between us but the thought occurred to me that this man had just hit me, and what’s to stop him from doing it again even if I caught up? I changed my course and went in to inform the building’s facility manager of what had happened, and together we walked out to seek witnesses.

It made no sense that a complete stranger would, for no rhyme or reason, just decide to lash out unprovoked. He had not taken my wallet, nor had he tried touching me in any other way. Some of my colleagues who had heard the story found it hard to believe, and tried justifying the incident by suggesting a case of mistaken identity, or any logical explanation they could formulate. Suddenly I found myself in a position where I felt the need to defend my story, and ludicrously, defend my status, for want of a better word, as a victim of unprovoked assault. I was shamed twice, once by the incident, and again by those whose initial response was disbelief, not sympathy. I think it is very telling when the cops who came to take my statement showed a whole lot more compassion than the triage nurses and medical staff did when I was taken to the hospital for a very rushed physical.

Of course, hell was raised when my father heard about this incident, and with a loving long-distance phone call, I was lambasted for not being alert and aware; his anger at the situation was understandably misplaced so I swallowed being berated. However, as soon as he made the fallacy of drawing links between my being of an ethnic background living in Australia and the attack happening, it was my turn to be incredibly pissed off.

Hatred that begets hatred will only lead to a never-ending cycle of ongoing antagonism, and violence is a manifestation of hatred. I did not disagree with my father, whom I love, worship and respect, for the sake of political correctness. My best friend and his family are “white” (a description I loathe since the concept of race in my opinion, is a construct), and it was his parents who picked me up from the hospital and kept a 24-hour vigil to ensure I was not concussed. I was not going to let slide a comment that pigeon-holed these loving people, even if, or perhaps especially since it came from my biggest hero.

It is fair to be skeptical of my lack of bitterness; this is how I will justify my present attitude. When the facility manager and I were scouting for witnesses only minutes after the incident, we met an elderly Aboriginal woman and approached her to ask if she had seen anything. She affirmed witnessing a man of the description I had provided running off eastwards and out of sight. It was that moment that my anger subsided and the fear descended on me; I burst into tears and wished I could disappear. The woman gently touched my arm, and, with the world in her eyes, she said “don’t cry, he didn’t hurt you did he?”

There were so many lessons to be drawn out of the entire episode. While the physical aches are still a reminder of the sheer brutality that lurks in man, I had my eyes opened to what in my opinion is the ultimate beauty that humanity has to offer – a timely kind word, or a gesture of care extended to a complete stranger who looks, speaks, acts and thinks nothing like you do can and does make a difference to how one sees the world.

For every lesson we learn, we first have to want to learn it. I was incredibly fortuitous in that the attack had merely set the stage and made me receptive to the subsequent messages I was to receive. In hindsight, it was a necessary experience, because that statistic Mr Jensen quoted is no longer just a number.

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One thought on “Not Just Another Number

  1. That sounds like an awesome book, I’ll try to track it down!

    Three years ago I was in a situation (it wasn’t as bad as assault – my car got broken into) where others seemed to try to find reasons why someone committed the crime against me specifically. Why they broke into my car and not theirs, why my car got broken into even though it was parked in a supposedly ‘secure’ area, etc.

    What happened was a lot of ‘victim-blaming’. They found fault with the things I did. They said it might have happened because I parked in a bad spot or because I didn’t buy a nice enough car with an alarm system, etc. And while they might have a point and all these things I did might have contributed to the crime, it certainly wasn’t my fault and realistically, like you, there wasn’t anything I could have done in that situation to prevent it. Again though, I do see my situation as much more trivial than assault because my feelings of personal safety were never compromised.

    Anyway, I do wonder if people victim-blame because they honestly think that the crime is partially somehow the victim’s fault, or because they want to delude themselves into thinking that a crime won’t happen to them because they’re doing everything right. Either way, it’s silly, because as you say, crimes aren’t just reduced to numbers, they are real and can happen to anyone.

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