Have you heard of Austin Ruse? Three days ago, I had no idea who he was, but today I cannot stop thinking about him. Austin Ruse is the President of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-Fam), whose mission, as described on the website, is to “defend life and family at international institutions and to publicize the debate.” The way C-Fam defends life and family, again per the website, is by “discrediting socially radical policies” on an international scale. Last week, Ruse took time away from defending life and family at C-Fam to play substitute radio talk show host on American Family Radio, where he shared his perceptions regarding the Duke University student. Earlier this month, the student revealed her porn-actress alter ego. This led Ruse to conclude that the student learned to become a porn star at Duke University in the women’s and gender studies programs. Ruse shared his hope that when the time comes for his daughters to go to college they opt for a private Christian college to avoid “the hard left, human-hating people that run modern universities, who should all be taken out and shot.” Yes, he really said that, on the open air waves, as the man in charge of a human rights organization. According to the Huffington Post, Ruses’ response to critics who express concern over his imperative was to dismiss the statement as “a figure of speech” and to call critics “pajama boys who have their panties in a twist.”
Ruse’s purported off-the cuff remark, and the public’s lethargic response to it have left me entirely perplexed. There’s been barely a peep about the comment in the media. Apparently I’m one of the few who sees the irony in the situation, that is, a man who fronts a human rights organization calling for the execution of people who do not share his worldview. I’m perplexed because I sit on the women’s studies advisory board at the university where I am employed, and I’m married to a history professor who dares to enlighten students on some of the lesser known details of US interventions abroad, and I can’t shake the thought that he’s talking about us!
So many of my present and former colleagues, friends, and members of my community also work at a university, and not one of them, not a single person fits the profile of someone so frightening or subversive as to warrant execution. This leads me to question who is the scary monster Ruse is imagining? Who are these “human-hating” individuals? When he calls upon people to be taken out into the street and shot, who does he see in his mind’s eye? Do average people like me, my husband, my friends and colleagues really evoke such horror? Or, is it the ideas that are so terrifying? I wonder if Ruse knows that ideas don’t die.
Yes, I have many questions. The questions arise because I feel threatened, and I don’t want to feel that way. I want to understand the thinking behind his comment. Given his response, that it was a “figure of speech”, it’s quite possible that he really didn’t think before saying it, but how does such a violent expression haphazardly roll from the tongue of a human rights advocate? Is Ruse oblivious to the copious examples of oppressive movements that began with the mass murders of academics whose views threatened authoritarian rule? Does he not consider mass execution to be a socially radical policy? His lack of sensitivity leads me to conclude he believes this type of violence is justified. His derisive response to people who expressed concern over the usage, the one where he insults their masculinity and expresses absolutely no regret over his thoughtlessness, adds to my conclusion that he feels entitled to the belief that violence is justifiable against differing worldviews.
My understanding of the comment and its implications leave me feeling targeted, so I am compelled to ask questions in an effort to help Mr. Ruse and others through the process of actually thinking about it, which leads to my next question. Who does Ruse anticipate will pull the trigger? Once someone like me, a mother, wife, military veteran, and beloved daughter is dragged into the street because I work at a university and possess differing viewpoints, who would be responsible for actually shooting me? Would there be death squads? Would the military be called upon to perform this act? Would it be Ruse himself? Inquiring in this way might appear pointless because it is virtually impossible to imagine the likelihood that such violence would be exacted upon citizens in the United States. We take for granted that this level of violence would never occur in the US, but it has happened repeatedly as policy in dictatorial and theocratic regimes across the globe.
The irony of Ruse, human rights advocate calling for the execution of academics reminds me of George Orwell’s 1984. The novel depicts a dystopian society where citizens are dominated through propaganda and paradoxical use of language. Government agencies are given euphemistic labels that are meant to mask a dangerous reality. For example, The Ministry of Truth oversees propaganda and the revision of history. The Ministry of Plenty oversees shortage and famine, and The Ministry of Peace overseas war atrocities. The people are taught to believe that war is peace, freedom is slavery, and that 2+2=5. The theory being that people who are willing (in the case of the book coerced) to believe in two mutually exclusive realities, ideologies or facts can be easily subjugated and victimized. Ruse claims his mission is to defend life and family, yet he promotes the use of terror and execution as means to that end; the two are diametrically opposed. I realize comparisons of dystopian literature to modern society have become almost passé, but in Ruse’s case, the comparison is apt.
I chose to write about Ruse because his comments, juxtaposed against his position as the president of a human rights organization, struck me as needing more attention. I cannot just afford him the benefit of the doubt and assume he really didn’t mean it. Maybe it’s because as a member of some of the groups he describes, I feel targeted by the comments. Maybe it’s because history has shown that a violent purge of university faculty and staff is the proven strategy of abusive leaders who seek to implement authoritarian rule by crushing dissenting voices and ideas. Maybe I chose to write about Ruse because those of us who are committed to social justice take for granted that people see us in a positive light because of the work we do. We know we’re on the right side, but the harsh reality is that, to some folks, our ideas are subversive, our commitment is unnerving, and our passion is threatening.
To some, we are a scary monster, and we must be put down. The more persistent we are in the pursuit of social justice, the more desperate people like Ruse become! Courtney Kidd wrote a great piece where she discussed the things they don’t tell you in social work school. To her list I would add that they don’t tell you people will be frightened and intimidated by your ideas and your pursuit of fairness, parity, and human rights. As social justice champions, we must be aware that people like Ruse exist, and that secretly, they wish we didn’t. It’s a frightening possibility, and some might shrink at the thought. I know at first, I did, but after some pause, and an opportunity to process, I feel better, less like a sitting duck and more like a social justice giant.
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