Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A contribution to the canons of journalism

Warning: This post includes discussion of a recent news story about an extremely brutal incident of rape and torture. For those interested in this topic, a listing of all posts at The Superfluous Man concerning sexual violence and related issues can be found by clicking here.

News coverage of sexual violence is a very sensitive subject, fraught with all manner of potential pitfalls for the media. As someone who follows this issue with some interest, and who has some experience working in the newspaper business, I would propose the following guideline for media coverage of this issue:

A news article about someone who was held prisoner by three assailants for nearly 24 hours, bound with extension cords, savagely beaten with fists, a mop handle, extension cords, and wooden planks, doused with caustic bleach and ammonia, repeatedly raped with the same mop handle, and saved from death only by the unexpected arrival of the roommate of one of the assailants should not contain the word "lovin'" in its title or subtitle, and especially not in reference to the victim.

There are people who need to be told this. At least, they do when the person beaten, tortured, raped, and soaked in toxic and corrosive chemicals is a man. Two articles appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News, and a third at NBC Philadelphia, about an incident in which a woman named Renada Williams allegedly told two male acquaintances, Shawn Aiken and a teenager whose name has not been released, that her boyfriend had raped her and asked for their help in taking revenge. (The actual motive appears to have been relationship trouble; the only evidence that this supposed rape occurred is the story Williams allegedly told her accomplices to enlist their aid.)

Aiken and his young associate, who are apparently adherents of the Amanda Marcotte school of jurisprudence, agreed. I'll let the Philadelphia Daily News take it from here:

About 10 p.m. Sunday, Williams called her sex partner of six months to her Frankford home and enticed him with sex, McGinnis said. While they were having sex, she excused herself to let in the two males, McGinnis said.

Aiken and the teen rushed in and apparently began to beat up the Northeast man with their bare hands, but it escalated from there.

At some point the males tied the man to a sofa with extension cords and began to strike him with the wood plank, electric cords and a mop, the captain said.

Their purported deeds grew more atrocious. The thrashing from the wood plank left the victim with open wounds, McGinnis said. Aiken and the teen then poured Clorox bleach and ammonia over the man, causing stinging sores.

Then the duo took Pine-Sol floor cleaner to lubricate the mop and sodomize the victim "several times" over the time he was held by the trio, McGinnis said.

The ordeal ended only when Williams' roommate, who owns the house and rents to her, arrived at 8:40 p.m. Monday and interrupted the alleged criminal activity, he said.
Before I continue, I should note first that the actual author of the Daily News articles is not to blame for what I'm going to complain about; newspaper writers don't have any control over their own headlines. I do think it's unfortunate that the word "rape" is never used in reference to the crime, since it plays into the hands of the idea that sexual violence against men doesn't "count" in the way that comparable violence against women does, but that may also be the result of the editor or of standing policy at the newspaper and so, again, it would be unfair to lay the blame at the reporter's feet.

What inspired this post was the title of one of the articles linked above, because it's quite illustrative once you understand what you're looking at.

I can conceive of the theoretical possibility of a mainstream American newspaper using a subtitle this flippant and tasteless at the top of a story about a comparable crime with a female victim, if the author of the subtitle and anyone involved in checking or approving it were either a. wildly out of touch with the world around them, such that they thought it wouldn't cause a firestorm of outrage and condemnation followed by the ignominious end of their employment, or b. embittered employees who want to be fired and have decided to spite their boss by bringing an avalanche of disgust crashing down on the paper before they slip away. There are circumstances where it might plausibly happen.

(There is certainly a hierarchy of sympathy and concern into which female victims are sorted- there's a reason that White Middle-Class Girl in Peril is a news media staple and Black Public Housing Resident Girl in Peril is not, after all- but protectiveness for "female rape victim" as an abstract category imposes limits on what is considered acceptable to say about them in public. Jokes about men being raped are normal and acceptable in the mainstream media; jokes about poor or promiscuous women being raped are not, however callous some people may be towards them in their unspoken attitudes.)

The only circumstances needed for a subtitle like that to be applied to the actual story and its male victim, on the other hand, is for everyone involved to be a normal American, with a normal American's views on the subject. Who's going to complain or cause trouble? Who's even going to notice that there's something to complain or cause trouble about? Damn near no one.

I don't think the editors were trying to be malicious. In fact, the offending subtitle is attached to an article that treats the crime and the victim seriously and respectfully. That's precisely what's bothersome about it, because it's symptomatic of how deeply embedded our culture's hostility to the idea of taking male victims seriously is: Even many of the people who acknowledge their existence and try to address them sympathetically routinely do so with language that implicitly or explicitly downplays and belittles the issue.

I hope to eventually have some stuff on some related issues mixed in with my more usual stuff, because (as I've mentioned in passing before) I think attitudes about gender are connected to statism in some extremely important ways that are worth exploring. It's a bit of a detour, but hopefully somebody or other will find it interesting.

(Hat Tip: Toy Soldiers)

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010


One of the stories that been in the news is the DUI arrest of California State Senator Roy Ashburn, a consistent opponent of gay marriage, as he departed a gay bar with a male companion. Ashburn has subsequently acknowledged in the media that he's gay, saying that he votes as he does in order to reflect the wishes of his constituents and declining to give his personal opinions on the issue. Much hay has been made over this, as one would expect, since it provides another embarrassing example of conservative hypocrisy on sexual matters.

It's an interesting little story, but as hypocrisy goes a secretly gay politician hostile to gay marriage rights is bush league. Mr. Ashburn apparently thinks that people of his own sexual orientation should be denied some of the legal rights enjoyed by heterosexuals, but so far as I am aware he does not advocate the criminalization of homosexual acts or relationships. (It should also be pointed out that it is unlikely but nevertheless possible that Ashburn is acting from his genuine convictions in opposing gay marriage. It's not as if holding an opinion atypical for a group you're a member of is some sort of superpower that only straight guys can wield.)

Put simply, his stated opinions political opinions do not imply that he himself is a social menace, and that we'd be better off if he spent some time in prison. Not all politicians reach that lofty standard.

President Barack Obama is an admitted past user of illegal drugs, namely cocaine and marijuana. Barack Obama is also firmly opposed to drug legalization. One could go up to State Senator Ashburn and ask, "Do you really think the country is made a better place by the fact that you aren't allowed to marry someone of the sex you're romantically interested in?" That's a stinging question.

But one could go approach President Obama and ask, "Do you think it would have been good for the country if you had been yanked out of school and sent to prison when you were a young man? In what ways do you believe America has been harmed by your ability to attend and graduate from high school and college without the interference of criminal prosecution, prison time, or a criminal record?

"In your memoir Dreams From My Father, you describe your youthful drug use as an attempt to shut out painful questions and feelings about your own identity. However, today you're a husband and father, enormously successful in your chosen career and ambitions, and free of addictions to drugs or alcohol. If you had spent more time locked in close proximity with violent criminals, and perhaps been raped a few times- or a few dozen times, or a few hundred times- in your early years, do you believe you would be a happier, healthier, and more productive member of society today? In what ways has your rehabilitation been harmed or hindered by missing out on this experience?

"Do you mourn the fact that justice, as you conceive it, was not done? Should we?"

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Ve belive in NOTHING, Olberman! Nothing!

Here's something interesting I've noticed about left-liberal political rhetoric of the past year or so: The increasing use of the word "nihilist" to describe opponents. Keith Olberman is the example I've seen most recently, but it's been popping up more and more lately, in reference to people who oppose the Democrats and especially people who oppose the currently debated health care "reforms."

I'm accustomed to liberals bombarding anyone who opposes them with accusations of racism, misogyny, greed, religious fanaticism, heartless indifference to human suffering, sadistic hatred of the disadvantaged, and a general sort of Saturday morning cartoon villainish love of wickedness. (This is why I've always found most of the liberal complaints about the increasingly ferocious turn right-wing rhetoric took after 9/11 to be laughably hypocritical, like a man who goes around attacking people with an ax becoming indignant when someone violates the Queensbury rules by kicking him in the shin.) This use of "nihilist is new to me, though.

It may seem like overanalyzing to look at this as anything other than a case of political hacks tossing around smart-sounding terms to create the illusion that they have more to say than "You suck," but I think the way people choose to say "You suck" can be revealing about people's attitudes.

This use of "nihilist" seems less weird if you consider the implicit assumptions of many people. Liberals often take the attitude that only things done by the government really "count," so that they consistently conflate "Nothing should be done" with "Nothing should be done
by the government." From that perspective, someone who persistently says "The government should not be used to address this problem" is indistinguishable from someone who says "This problem should not be addressed." Since most liberals are so heavily invested in the myth that Republicans are die-hard free market advocates who don't want the government doing much of anything, it would follow naturally that they don't really think anything matters.

Further, as I've said before, liberals are often in the habit of taking all their assumptions for granted to such an extent that they have trouble remembering that other possible sets of assumptions even exist. Liberal responses to opposition often have a bewildered, hysterical edge absent in their conservative counterparts; conservatives usually just get mad at you for opposing them, but liberals often seem shocked and panicked to discover that something so alien and unnatural as someone who disagrees with them is

From within a worldview influenced by these assumptions, accusations of "nihilism" make sense. Liberal ideas about what's right and wrong are the only possible ideas about what's right and wrong; if you reject them, it follows that you have no moral beliefs at all. Hence the endless claims that opponents of the Left must be motivated by greed, or hatred, or mindless fear of change, or whatever; people who claim to be motivated by a set of moral beliefs opposed to those of liberals must be lying (or perhaps crazy), because they're claiming an impossibility.

This is not an exclusively leftist phenomenon. Consider some common traits of conservative rhetoric.

Liberals aren't the only people prone to thinking that only government action really "counts." Among conservatives, one of the more common arguments in favor of government prohibition of things like drug use, prostitution, pornography, and so on is that it would "send the wrong message" to make them legal, even if prohibition is ineffectual for actually preventing them. It's through the government that meaningful moral disapproval is expressed, not through society. Conservatives do frequently have more appreciation for voluntary social institutions than liberals, but they still often treat them as secondary: It's great if parent's and churches and the innumerable unspoken norms of society chip in by telling people that using drugs is bad, but unless we punish drug use by government force we don't really mean it.

Similarly, though I think that conservatives are much less prone than liberals to forgetting that their belief system is not universally agreed upon, many of them do fall into the trap of speaking as if it is the only set of beliefs possible, especially on matters of personal freedom.

For instance, I've often seen it used by social conservatives to describe people who reject conservative beliefs about sexuality. But most such people are no more "relativists" than conservatives. For instance, most advocates of equality for gays, if asked various moral questions relating to homosexuality, would say that statements like "It is not immoral to be gay" and "It is wrong to persecute someone because of their sexual orientation" are true, and that they are true beyond his particular time and place. They certainly wouldn't say that "Is shouting homophobic insults at a gay couple wrong?" is a question with no objective answer, or that "Hating gays is wrong for me, but right for Fred Phelps."

Some conservatives don't seem to get this, and treat rejecting their views as if it were the same thing as denying the legitimacy of any moral judgment at all. Hence, I think, the frequency with which people argue that acceptance of homosexuality will lead us inevitably to acceptance of sex with children or animals. The idea that people who reject their moral beliefs have their own sincerely held set of beliefs about right and wrong (e.g., "Voluntary sex between two adults is acceptable, sex with someone unable to give meaningful consent is wrong") just doesn't compute with some people.

From my perspective, ideas like "If it's OK for a grown man to have sex with another grown man, then it must also be OK for a grown man to have sex with a little boy" and "If you don't want to seize someone's money at gunpoint and spend it on medicine for poor people, you must hate poor people"are so bizarre as to seem almost literally insane, but if you start with the premise that a particular set of beliefs are the only beliefs possible it makes perfect sense.

Even people who are generally understanding of the fact that people can sincerely have beliefs significantly different from theirs often fall into this if the difference grows sufficiently extreme. Think of how often people will insist that people with outrageously repugnant moral beliefs, like the Nazis, simply must have been either crazy or insincere. Often, however, people don't get as far as that. Indeed, as the venom between the major parties in the US often demonstrates, the difference doesn't have to be very wide before the "How could anyone believe that?" response kicks in, especially when those differences are tied to tribal groups like political parties.

This is one of the upsides of growing up as a weirdo, by the way- you have it drilled into your being, from an early age, that "How would I feel in his place?" and "How does he feel in his place?" are not the same question. Understanding someone who's beliefs, feelings, or desires are significantly different from your own is far harder, and far rarer,than most people realize, and the problems caused by that deficiency are greatly magnified by the fact that most people are ignorant of it.

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