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Sympathy for the Devil

There’s plenty more to be said about it, but let me drop a quick note on the ‘Steubenville rape case’.

Rape is awful, but the case isn’t about rape, and it isn’t even legal. Yes, it has legal aspects, but that’s not the meat of it. Quick diagnostic question: remember the guy who shot up a cinema where Batman was playing? The one with the googly eyes and orange hair. What is his name?

Yeah. Him. Jog your memory?

His name is hard to remember because in the media show that episode was ages ago and that character is no longer relevant to the plot.

If the rape case were legal from a criminal perspective, the point would be to restore conditions under which Americans could live together in peace by showing what happens if they break certain rules. Consequence Y will happen to anyone who breaks rule X, and the State is going to make sure that happens, so we can all go through our days without having to worry about people violating X.*

So what is X in this case? If it’s a legal rule, it’s a legal case. If not, it’s about something else.

The tragedy and crime of rape is the violation of another person’s autonomy by violating their body. Getting a tattoo is personal preference, but holding a person down and injecting ink under their skin against their will would be torture. Same logic applies to the ol’ slap and tickle, which is why it makes sense that Ohio’s law allows for non-consensual vaginal penetration by anything to be considered rape.

For the last several months, the two boys who raped that girl have been bombarded with discourse about their actions on one night in August. They spent several hours each day listening to people tell them what they did wrong and have probably thought about little else. So when it came time to apologize, what did they recognize as the crime:

“No pictures should have been sent out, let alone been taken,”

This has nothing to do with autonomy. That apology would be more like, “I’m sorry that I reduced her to a piece of meat and in doing so made her and myself less human.”

What crime did they recognize and apologize for?  They apologized for the existence of pictures. And not for taking the pictures, but just that pictures exist. Why do the pictures matter so much? It sounds too simple to say that this is just the natural progression of ‘pics or it didn’t happen’, but it does imply that no pics = it didn’t happen. This is profound. Pictures aren’t just a representation of reality, they constitute it. You are your recorded self,** your life is what’s recorded, and there’s a certain hierarchy to different kinds of representation. A textual resume is nice, but pictures are more convincing, and I suspect the highest form would be the biopic. A real life can fade into the background once we have a video representation of it. Biopics also have the pretention of comprehensiveness (i.e. they’re about biographies, not events in biographies), and they’re also related by celebrities whose authority is already established. You know how I know that Johnny Cash never popped a zit? Joaquin Phoenix never had one; it wasn’t in the movie.

…but only one future

So the rapists’ crime wasn’t the rape, it was ruining a perfectly good reality, which is to say a compelling narrative. If they had been basement-dwelling outcasts, we could fit them into the standard ‘unremarkable Guy next door, always kept to himself, would never have thought’-narrative based on an established stock character – probably somebody like Steve Buscemi. But these kids are good looking athletes. This isn’t the right story for them. They’re supposed to be able to unload their copious hormones on plentiful, good-looking, publicly chaste but privately raunchy cheerleaders.

This sounds harsh, but it’s the story CNN regrets not being able to tell:

And it might not be a coincidence that this regret came from a woman who looks just a few years beyond her last cheerleading gig. How can you not mourn the loss of your illusions? These kids not only ruined their potential as marriage material and congressmen, they went off script, they bent reality in the wrong direction.

The rule they violated isn’t legal at all. They broke a cardinal rule of show business (script, dammit.***

This is why gets assigned a role, and once you’ve been typecast, you better follow your character’s arc. Otherwise, how is anybody supposed to know what story to tell, what pictures storyboard the right reality?

Yes, these Guys bear as much responsibility as stupid young men can, and there’s probably some value in making sure other stupid young men and women know that nobody has the right to treat anybody else like a piece of meat (though the State should set a better example). But they were born into this world. They didn’t make it. This is a tragedy, but don’t mistake it for a particular tragedy; it’s general.


*In a civil case, the point would be to restore conditions under which those involved could meet each other on the bus or in a restaurant without losing it, and the State’s function is to serve as a Higher Power that imposes a resolution neither party has the power to change. Either or both might think the resolution is unfair, but they can still live with it so long as they realize that neither of them is responsible for it, and the responsibility is beyond their grasp.

**This might also be why CNN has to explain that they have a policy of not identifying the victims of sexual assault. That is, they don’t just take it for granted that the victim’s identity is not public business, they explain that they will not record this information, because people would … what. Feel cheated otherwise?

***Not totally accurate. There’s also the ‘Told you so!’-script that revels in perpetual victimhood. If the narrators of this story ever got what they wanted, the story would die, so it’s vitally important to them that macho-bullies continue to exist and continue to be evil. What better way of doing so than making sure the world/plot/narrative consists only of bullies and victims?

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10 Responses

  1. I think there’s an interesting parallel here between the football player rapists and Nachlasse’s review of Moonrise Kingdom. What if these players were just testing their limits to force the adults to become adults in order to punish them? Or otherwise, discover just how far their privilege goes? After all, these are the heroes of the town, and I don’t think anyone outside of small-town, football obsessed rural America can entirely understand to what degree this is true. Maybe there are similarities in European soccer (football for the rest of the world)? But I digress, the point is, when people don’t feel they have adequate limits, perhaps the reaction is to force the imposition of such limits.

  2. what the hell is this?!

  3. Clearly I’ve been hanging around here too much (not enough?). But seriously, where I differ from you and Nachlasse is in my focus on the motivations of the rapist teenagers. I think your deal has it backwards, it isn’t that they get treated like gods/kings/etc as long as they act correctly and within the limits. They act outside those limits *because* they are treated like gods/kings/etc.

    My virtue ethics spin on this is even in the absence of outside punishment, they knew what they were doing was wrong, even if they can’t admit it to themselves or others even now that it’s all been exposed. No one ultimately avoids the punishment of our own characters. The prodding of adults to be adults is the symptom of guilty consciences.

  4. I was just going to say that Guy read me wrongly. I’ll write in a longer post instead. Maybe.

  5. … and even then only as a provisional hypothesis.

    By must exist a system.

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