I’ve been thinking about monsters. Not the zombies I usually research and write about, but the language of monsters that lurks in our everyday speech. The rhetoric of horror is so pervasive and so present. It comes to us when we have something to speak that seems unspeakable. It is deployed to justify violence and harm. It is used to vilify and to distance. It appears in moments of trauma. The language of monsters is disastrously unavoidable.
I’ve been thinking about how we create monsters and ultimately about how we destroy them. Creation and destruction tangled together, dependent on one another. Their ubiquity begs for explanation when I have no words to give.
I’ve been thinking about monsters because I also can’t quit thinking about Darren Wilson killing Michael Brown.
Like so many people, I was heartbroken over the grand jury’s decision last week. I was also enraged and frustrated. I keep looking at my children and imagining the suffering of Brown’s parents and all the parents that fear the same fate for their children. I don’t know their anguish; I can’t really. But, I’m haunted by autopsy sketches, the pain etched into his mother’s face, and the wounded bodies of protesters. I hug my children a bit tighter and hold them more closely. I also realize that their white skin offers them protection that Brown did not have.
I keep coming back to monsters.
In his testimony for the grand jury, Wilson described Brown, “it looks like a demon.” Dexter Thomas notes the dehumanizing language that Wilson employs with both “it” and “demon,” which resonates with a larger history of denying the humanity of African Americans. Thomas describes how the events in Ferguson feel like a bad movie playing out exactly like we feared it would. Spoilers aren’t an issue, if the pattern is the same.
My colleague Finbarr Curtis also picked up the reliance on the demonic in Wilson’s testimony. He writes:
The image of a demon is an apt one, but not because of anything that possessed Brown. Wilson’s demon, as with most demons, expressed his deepest fears. In Michael Brown’s face, Wilson saw the embodiment of all that he found impenetrable, unintelligible, and terrifying in his daily work amidst the black humanity of Ferguson.
Wilson made Brown into a demon, a monster, as a method to assert the rightness of shooting him. I can comprehend this sentence. Yet, I also can’t. I refuse to let it make sense. To grant that sentence comprehension. As I type, I feel lost and weary. Making monsters becomes the defense for the indefensible, and I fear that there is no arc of justice that we bend toward.
I turned to Edward Ingebretsen’s At Stake for answers, or perhaps, solace. I needed someone to tell me the high cost of creating monsters, who understood my hurt and worry. I turned to this book for guidance, to help me express what I don’t have the words for. Ingebretsen realizes the ethical stakes of his project. Monster rhetoric is dangerous, but he wants to demonstrate the consequences for individual lives. He needs to explain why we create and maintain monsters just to kill them. His urgency permeates his prose. I read him with urgency. Page by page, I sought answers for why we need monsters. I found no solace.
“Monsters,” he writes, “warn by example: they are themselves terrible consequences” (xiv). In their most basic function, monsters warn. They warn us of our future fate. They teach us who we need to fear. They crystallize the peril that lurks in society and reflect it back to us. They become the boundaries of what we consider human by showing us what we are not. Monsters become the mechanism by which a community reinterprets itself (4).
Yet, monster also emerges as a “tactic, a figure of speech used to demonize and to alienate” (8). Horror language shifts out of movies into the realm of the everyday, and we hardly ever stop to think about what this means. What have we lost if the rhetoric of monsters becomes shorthand for ethical judgment? Monster-talk appears everywhere, no longer bound by the fictional spaces it used to inhabit. Monsters appear among us, and people label them haphazardly and often.
Darren Wilson described Michael Brown as a monster, which could or could not be how he actually felt. Perhaps, this narrative about a demon was crafted for the audience that was the grand jury. I can’t know. What I do know is how much his reliance on the language of the demonic bothers me. “It looks like a demon” is stuck in my craw. These five words as justification of taking someone’s life. Words fail me again.
Ingebretsen notes, “Monster-talk might be cheap, but it is easy to use and takes its toll in human lives” (9). He warns us again and again that the monster is made to be staked. Every time, we employ the monstrous to describe humans the costs are high.
In his testimony, Wilson made a black teenager into a monster. He deprived Brown of his life and then his humanity, and he was not indicted. I can’t.
I’m thinking about monsters today, but not really. I’m thinking about how a white man killed a black teen. I’m thinking about how human beings harm one another using monstrosity as an excuse to mask our actions. I’m thinking about how labeling someone a demon becomes a ready excuse for harm and loss. I’m thinking about the trauma of losing a child and the lack of justice. I’m wondering what the lack of indictment for Wilson says about our nation, our imagined community.
Ingebretsen asks, “Why do we make monsters; of whom, really are we afraid? (12). I’m asking myself this question again and again. Maybe you should too.