Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Rape Culture and its Discontents

There's been a lot of heated blog debate about this Steubenville rape trial, where these two asshole high school boys raped an unconscious girl and were sentenced to several years in jail, mostly focused around the question of how much blame should be apportioned to them personally, and how much to the culture in which they were raised (see here for representative comments).

Now don't get me wrong; these boys are fucking assholes of the worst sort (not that I would rule out the possibility that they could at some point stop being fucking assholes--the odds seem slim in this society, though).  No denying that.  But the idea that they're just assholes in a vacuum…well, that's an idea that just seems too naive to even bother with.  Except for the worst kind of psychopaths, who clearly have serious organic brain problems, nobody who does evil does it with no reference to anyone outside them. 

But that seems to me to be so obvious it's not even worth noting.  However, there's something about the particulars here that irks me.  Let me steal a comment from the above link to pick on; nothing against "amil666" particularly, but this relates to the point I want to make.

They very clearly knew that what they did was rape and that it was wrong. And there were other boys present (presumably of roughly the same age) who kept saying how fucked up what they did was, and how wrong it was, and how would they like it if someone did that to their daughter. But the shit head still could not give one fuck and he kept joking about it like the sociopath he is.

I think this is a fair paraphrase of the above: "they knew damn well that what they were doing was wrong, but they did it anyway; therefore, fuck 'em."  Intuitively, maybe you sorta want to nod along with that.  But to me, there's a problem, and the problem is this idea of ascribing "choice" to any of this.  Seriously, do any non-rapists think this way about their own relationships, in their own day to day lives?  I should hope not.  Just for the record: I have never "chosen" not to rape anyone.  More accurate to say that the very idea of raping anyone is not on my mental map.  I know very well that if I were to ever try such a thing, I would immediately be crippled by intense feelings of shame and guilt--and I certainly wouldn't be able to function physically.  At no point in my life did I "decide" to be this kind of person; it's just sort of the way it shook out, and the way, I hope, it shakes out for most men (though obviously not nearly enough, unfortunately).

But I put it to you: if I never made a conscious decision not to be the kind of person who could rape someone, then why would I imagine that these kids made any decision to be the kind of people who could?  Sure, you can argue 'til you're blue in the face as to how much of that is nature and how much nurture (though I'd tend to very strongly favor the latter), but you can do that about any human behavior.  The only way to argue that these kids are just plain evil, end of story, no one and nothing else to blame, is to pretend to embrace things about yourself that you self-evidently don't believe.  I know it's nice to feel self-righteous and all, but as long as we privilege that over seeing these things as social problems that require social solutions, we're gonna be getting nowhere fast.


Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

Whether or not the thought to do something might crop into one's head is sort of beside the point (unless you're concerned with whether or not you should praise those who avoid the act). It is the duty of the individual to consider one's actions and to avoid acts which are wrong or harmful. Unless the boys in question were actually insensitive to the harm and immorality of their actions--in which case, they'd be legally insane--then their knowledge of those issues should have dissuaded them from going through with their desires.

You needn't empathize with their troubling ideas to judge their decisions. But, perhaps you can put yourself in a similar sort of situation. Had you an opportunity to steal something you really wanted, but could not afford, you might think, "I wish I could just take that," but would that be justification for absconding with the item? First off, you probably wouldn't take it. You'd probably consider the brief thought foolish, impracticable, and immoral; never even considering actually stealing it. But even if you did think about it, you'd still likely decide against it for myriad reasons, including social and moral concerns. That's exactly the sort of thoughtfulness and responsibility these boys showed they lack.

But even if they aren't ultimately or totally at fault for lacking these characteristics, they are still responsible for the consequences of their actions, and society is still justified in responding negatively and with force to the boys' misdeeds. Sociopaths, child molesters, and incompetents all regularly deal with negative consequences, even though their faults are at least partially beyond their respective control. If a person naturally and exclusively sexually attracted to kids were not treated as different from the rest of the population, that would be weird and problematic. When we accept or ignore the harmful or immoral acts of incompetents and sociopaths we end up with things like Don King or the Bush administration. You might agree that's to be avoided.

Being prone to thinking about immoral, illegal, or harmful act (or even just thinking about such a thing on some certain occasion) may be a partial explanation for doing it, but it is no kind of excuse; neither can we afford to treat it as an ameliorating factor.

None of which means we should avoid discussion of the wherefores of rape or the like.

11:34 PM  
Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

We may inadvertently reinforce a culture of permissiveness by not openly confronting just how immoral and responsible these boys were. Much of society still doesn't directly and explicitly acknowledge both the immorality and the responsibility these boys owned in their actions (as can be seen here: http://publicshaming.tumblr.com/ and here: http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/03/17/cnn-grieves-that-guilty-verdict-ruined-promising-lives-of-steubenville-rapists/) .

Denying that thoughts consistent with harmful and illegal acts somehow ameliorate those same acts or lessen the responsibility of the thinker/actor in no way stops us from addressing societal issues which might contribute to the person thinking and acting in that way.

3:39 PM  
Anonymous amil666 pontificated to the effect that...

Hmm. Just stumbled across this after googling my name. This post is probably too old for me to kick up further debate on this, but I just want to say for the record that nothing in my post was meant to indicate that society doesn't play a role, or that we shouldn't do all that we can to engineer a society in which no person rapes another person. In fact, in a later post (@ March 19th, 2013 at 5:31 pm), I wrote, "I understand being concerned about the societal factors that allow for shit like that to happen, and wanting to do more to make society better (though, again, at this point, I don't really know what more I can do–I would love for some specific advice here)." What's in parenthesis is especially important to my point. What I was responding to was a blog post that contended that these boys should be "pitied", and that it is we, as a society, who are to blame. My point was that, no, though societal factors play a role, this was a case where the individuals are more deserving of blame than society, particularly considering that(1) these kids in fact did know better, and (2) we as a society have done as much as can be reasonably expected of us to stop this kind of thing from happening, so much so that it's not fair or reasonable to pass the buck to society on this one. If this were 500 B.C. and these boys were soldiers who were raping and pillaging a city they had just sacked, then okay, society is to blame there, as the culture of that time dictated that it's your right to rape and pillage a city you sacked. But we don't live in such a culture; in fact, as I noted, we live in one of the most anti-rape cultures in history, though (as I also noted) that is not to say that the situation is perfectly fine and we shouldn't bother with trying to do better.

Let me be clear, I don't believe in a metaphysically/absolutely free will, but I do believe that there is a contextual, everyday sense of free will that is real. So, e.g., if I am chained to a wall, then I am not free to leave. Or if I am unwittingly slipped some drug that turns me into a murderous lunatic, then whatever people I ended up killing in that state, I did not kill out of my own free will (in the everyday, contextual sense). In this sense of free will (which is similar to the legal definition of "voluntary"), it cannot be doubted that these boys acted freely, and are therefore responsible for their crimes. That doesn't mean we are then free to close our eyes to society's role, only that these boys should not be pitied out of some (mistaken) belief that they didn't know any better and that it's really society's fault for not teaching them better. And, again as I noted, there are loud idiots who downplay the significance of rape, but these are not the majority, and I don't see what more I can be reasonably expected to do to mitigate the harms caused by these loud idiots, of whom there will never be any lack.

And yes I was angry when I made that post, but not so much because of the heinousness of the crimes (heinous crimes happen all the time, and I can't afford to be that upset all the time), but rather because just about everyone, across the political spectrum, was focusing on the poor boys, all but ignoring the victim, as if she's just an incidental factor. I also have a strong suspicion that this was due to the fact that their crime was "just" drugging her and having unconsensual sex with her unconscious body. I mean, you did see not so this kind of outpouring of sympathy or pity for the juvenile Adam Lanza, who was bullied throughout his life and who clearly had very real mental problems. In fact, in that case, I only recall posts saying how we should not sympathize with Lanza, and how we should not even talk about him because he's not worthy of that kind of attention. Killing so many children is arguably worse than the rape of one person, but I have a feeling that's not the reason for the difference in treatment.

7:28 PM  

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