The justified Waking Life response shows the need to tackle our city’s deep issues with misogyny and rape culture. The hasty push to forgive and forget is a dangerous one
Above: Protesters outside the closed Waking Life coffee shop last week, rallying against predatory misogyny from owners Jared Rutledge and Jacob Owens. Photo by Max Cooper.
Unless you’re emerging from hibernation, you’ve probably heard about the news about local coffee shop Waking Life, specifically over the blatant and predatory misogyny from owners Jared Rutledge and Jacob Owens.
Starting last month, a blog asserted that Rutledge and Owens were tied to the rampantly misogynistic red pill and pick-up artist subcultures, through a podcast and, in the former’s case, a Twitter account. AshevilleBlog then brought the issue into the media spotlight with further reporting and coverage. From there, the news spread rapidly, even hitting national and international media.
Important to remember, as the media cycle has had some time to turn over at this point, is that this wasn’t just a drunken outburst or a singular incident — though that would have been bad enough — this was a podcast, a Twitter account, an ideology tied to years of actions. Actions that were enabled because of the level of clout they had within our community. Actions done with determined, sober effort over a long period of time.
The ideology emphasized women as “notches” for their “game.” Amid the center of the city’s Latino population, the tweets referred to Mexican women in blatantly racist terms. In a county facing a record problem with domestic violence deaths, they called women “plates” and Rutledge tweeted “bitches get stitches” as “dating advice.”
In one podcast Owens also claimed he had sex with a woman in the hospital, while she was drugged, and the pair joked about a lack of consent. Sex with someone when they’re drugged past the point of consent is an act of rape.
In response to this horror, people rallied. They highlighted their words and actions as far and loud as they could. Some targeted by Rutledge or Owens came forward with their stories. Peaceful protesters assembled outside Waking Life (which is closed, at least for now). Employees resigned. Plans for a downtown expansion crashed. Mountain Bizworks revoked their loan. OurVOICE refused a donation, stating they were “not in a position of absolving them for their misogyny as it perpetuates a culture of danger to all women and girls.” Their landlord said he’d evict them if he could.
Forums on rape culture and the larger issues at stake are being held (including an important one tonight). People expressed justifiable outrage and called for our city to go farther in tackling the kind of culture their actions embodied.
That reaction was, on just about every level, Asheville at its finest. It was a reminder that there are people, organizations and cultures here that are fighting against the hatred and prejudice that all too often goes unchallenged. This time, the public broadly seemed to listen and join.
It was refreshing on many levels. I became a journalist in part because my alma mater, Appalachian State University, had a major rape epidemic and an environment committed not just to ignoring the issue but actively covering it up. I have covered the issue at several points over the ensuing years. Rape culture is quite real, and there are far too many people in our city — and in many, many others — that it has violated or killed. Sadly, that continues today.
Rape culture is a cop ignoring a survivor when they show them text messages from a rapist, admitting to rape, because “he seems like a nice guy.” It’s prosecutors refusing to process rape kits because they don’t believe it’s worth the time. It’s universities and businesses shutting down even the discussion of the topic because they prize the preservation of a lie over the safety of their workers or students. It’s writing off domestic abuse as a “lover’s quarrel” or turning it into a punchline.
And that’s just a shred of the stories I’ve known. I was raised as a guy, on the privileged end of this particularly horrific culture and I still have plenty of blind spots. There are people and groups in our community raising this reality and committed to fighting it. Listen to them and support them with the time and resources you have.
I also admit that I was surprised a bit by the reaction. Not surprised there were strong people willing to stand up against misogyny and rape culture here: many Ashevillians have fought valiantly against that for decades. But because for once, for awhile, it looked like the overwhelming public reaction — from the community, from business and many in the establishment — was on the same side.
All too often, I’ve seen the opposite. Violence against women, misogyny, even rape or attempted murder can disappear into silence, a veil of “he’s a nice guy” or “he was just drunk, he had a bad night.” Too often it’s the survivors, not the perpetrators, that end up leaving town or losing jobs. Too often it’s those that speak out that are met with public backlash.
This was different. Attribute it to the hard work of activists and organizations, attribute it to a changing culture, attribute it to a case so blatantly public that Ashevillians across some of the usual boundaries were stirred to do something. But it happened. And in that, there’s a cause for real hope.
The fact remains that Rutledge and Owens’ actions were just the tip of an iceberg, and if we’re serious about changing our culture here to one truly against what they represented this will just be the beginning. In addition to meting out some much-deserved consequences, the outrage can serve notice to those with some level of power who’ve been just as misogynistic but have dodged the same level of public backlash: the city has changed and their day is done. Combined with education and discussion informing more of the public about the realities around them, we could see a better Asheville.
Then there came the other part of the reaction.
It has barely been a week since the news broke, and already there’s a rush to forgive, hand-wringing over public shame, or more execrably, even a look at this as a case study for business management. Already, if you’ve seen any of the resulting online discussions, there’s clucking that righteous anger, peaceful protest and community discussion are somehow a step too far.
That is disturbing on a number of levels. In the face of a culture too often hostile to survivors and, sadly, an often-ineffective legal system, public outrage and shame are often some of the only tools left to bring some level of justice.
And that justice is important, not just because it’s right, but because the infliction of consequences is one of the only ways — combined with widespread education and organization — that cultures like this ever change. On the public end, it’s about the only thing I’ve ever seen strike fear into misogynists in positions of power (appealing to their better natures is pointless). The fact is, if a misogynist really wants to keep acting like a horrific misogynist, the realization that it will mean the end of their career and serious personal consequences is one of the only things that will keep them from doing so.
Just after the news, right about the time the clucking over the supposed horrors of public shaming was heating up, Rutledge and Owens crawled out to give a softball interview riddled with excuses and self-justifications about their “sexual adventures,” with a push towards how they could “re-integrate” and look at the whole response as a “learning experience.” At the end, the duo mentioned their plan to, in Rutledge’s words, “give it a little bit of time, reach out to some people we need to reach out to” and have a “town meeting” to “lance the boil” so they can find “a way back.”
This reeks far more of damage control than any real penance. Given that their apologies for years of determined, predatory behavior started at exactly the moment the outrage threatened their pocketbooks, skepticism is absolutely justified. Given that, I can also see an alternate scenario — a particularly terrible one — playing out.
While our city’s culture has many laudable aspects, another nasty part of it is an aversion to ongoing conflict and a desire to bury ugly realities as quickly as possible. So let’s say Owens and Rutledge hold that meeting and exploit it to get some more uncomfortable elements of the public (who would dearly love for this to die down) to back away from the issue. In the end, despite the current setbacks, they lose plenty of money, but nothing they can’t make up later.
After a period of public hibernation, they pull out whatever resources they’ve got socked away and relaunch, using the redemption narrative as a marketing tool. They get some puff pieces in the more gentry-friendly media, with soulful shots of them staring into the distance and pages full of wibbling about how much they’ve learned from their mistakes. Given the nature of these pieces, we’ll be lucky if the survivors or their past actions get anything more than a paragraph or two. They laugh all the way to the bank.
And all of this will happen again.
This is a possibility because this case has upset the status quo on a number of levels, throwing into sharp relief the darker sides of our own problems with misogyny and the reverence given to business owners (especially when they’re well-off white guys). That’s the thing with facing the tip of an iceberg; the territory below the surface is necessary to tackle, but it’s never comfortable or easy.
When it’s finally shaken, even a bit, there is an incredibly strong urge to restore the status quo, to “move forward” not in the way toward a better city that the protesters or OurVOICE are doing, but in the sense of “let’s pretend it’s dealt with so we can go back to believing things are ok here.” This is aided by the fact that every misogynist lurking beneath the surface — and there are many, many more here than Rutledge and Owens — would dearly love this to not go any further.
So our city’s tendency towards forgiveness, towards emphasizing the positive even to a fault, gets conscripted in the service of getting two predatory bigots off the hook.
The fact is that the pressure, often passive aggressive or even outright hostile, on the aggrieved and the survivor to automatically forgive is of a piece with “boys will be boys,” “do you really want to ruin their lives?” and a thousand other excuses. It is, bluntly, part of rape culture. It’s often the most insidious part of how reactions to these stories play out in the media and the public eye: a narrative that is deployed to disarm justified outrage, prevent any larger change from happening and even in many cases, let the direct perpetrators dodge consequences.
This is sadly, not new. But this time can be different.
Justice demands that the consequences will only end when the survivors — and those most affected by this brand of misogyny — decide they should. They will end when this town’s rape culture is actually, for once, struck to its core and a strong feminist movement is at the center of building a better Asheville. The consequences will end when what remains of the Waking Life owners’ careers and future are enough of a ruin that the next misogynist piece of crap who wants to abuse their power thinks twice.
They should not end a second before, or we’ll be back here again very, very soon.