The Fine Line Between Socially Justifiable and Morally Reprehensible

My wife asked me the other day what I thought about the scandal surrounding recently-resigned Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel, wherein photos of him in blackface, mocking Hurricane Katrina victims, surfaced nearly fifteen years after the fact. To be fair, I hadn’t even heard, but it brought up a (short-lived) debate over what is, and what isn’t, justifiable in the long-term.

During the conversation, she brought up the controversy over Brett Cavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, and how he was not (successfully) persuaded to resign, despite the surfacing of what was, to many, a far worse crime. Her position was that, in Ertel’s case, despite the offensiveness of his behavior, no one was hurt – something that can’t be said of Cavanaugh. As such, it comes across as painfully ironic that the perpetrator of a lesser crime should suffer more than someone who stands accused of rape.

She pointed out that Ertel’s mockery of terrible suffering was – or at least could have been – nothing more than a poor decision, and not necessarily reflective of his perspective or personality, especially after fifteen years, whereas someone who thinks it’s okay to sexually assault women is, essentially, unredeemable.

It reminded me also of the case against Brock Turner, who was not simply accused of rape, but actually caught in the act itself. A great furore was made in his defense that his own actions were themselves simply a poor decision, and that a single mistake as a youth shouldn’t jeopardize an entire career, life, whatever.

I thought it interesting that my wife was willing to give someone mocking tragedy victims in a racially charged manner a second chance, but not someone who made the decision to rape another human being. She’s right, to an extent – far more individual harm was done by Cavanaugh and Turner than by Ertel – but to hinge the argument on the mental capacity for change – and the assumption that a rapist can’t change, but a racist can – is a potentially dangerous proposition.

I don’t normally take much of a stance on these types of societal problems – I feel too far removed, socially and mentally, to make a valid argument – but in this instance, it’s given me pause for thought. To start with, I want to dismiss the argument of ‘legal’ vs. ‘illegal’; laws are arbitrary, and fluctuate with the whims of what present-day society deems acceptable or not. I’m not going to discuss whether racial mockery is okay because it isn’t explicitly against the law; I’d rather discuss this in the context of what is, simply, right or wrong.

All things are driven by human decision; the decision to get up, the decision to go to bed, the decision to wear this shirt or that sweater, and the decision whether to do what’s right or what’s wrong. Of course, in that sense right and wrong are entirely subjective, and mercy to the whims of what’s socially implanted in our minds; we’re taught (as a whole) that rape is wrong, and yet men do it every day.

Why?

Why is that the decision they go with – to have sex with an unconscious girl, or to physically force themselves on someone who is literally fighting back? In the moment before the act, there is a decision – to do, or not to do. Most people, I think, would choose to not do, but there are, quite clearly, some who choose the opposite.

Is there something fundamentally wrong with the mental wiring in those individuals? Is it something that is inherent to their psychology, that no amount of teaching or conditioning can overcome? Is it simply that they were never taught to control their baser urges, and act without thought – and can they be taught to think, instead? Or, simpler still, is that in-the-moment decision to rape, or to wear blackface, the product of poor upbringing and circumstance – a combination that may never replicate itself exactly the same ever again?

This isn’t an easy debate; if Ertel hadn’t had these photos surface, he would still be Secretary of State – and would the fact of his behavior fifteen years ago change his ability to perform his job? Even if he thought such behavior was acceptable in 2005, does that mean he still does? The emergence of evidence doesn’t change the past – only how we view it. Certainly some people who held Ertel in high regard now condemn him – whilst others who never held an opinion one way or the other now feel sympathy.

If Brock Turner hadn’t been caught, would he have a burgeoning career, an academic future, and a happy life? Probably. Again – it doesn’t change the fact of what he did, only how he is perceived. If Turner had raped that girl and left, never to be known, he would have likely gone on to a perfectly normal life – at the expense of hers. Maybe he would have learned that he can get away with rape, and gone on to commit further crimes – or maybe it would have just become a skeleton in his closet.

To add fuel to the fire, the increasing impossibility of remaining private in a world of perpetual social impressions leads to the question of what’s more important: the act, or the act of being caught. Evidence of the past is becoming ever more difficult to erase, but should it be held against us years – sometimes decades – later? Surely, we’ve all done things we regret; does that mean we’re to be judged for life for those things?

I think there a couple of considerations when condemning – or forgiving – a person for their past. The point my wife brought up – of direct harm – is valid, and worth bearing in mind. What level of hurt did a person’s behavior effect upon another human being? Is it fair that a rapist be allowed a normal life, when their victim’s world is utterly shattered?

I also think the influence a person has on society should be taken into consideration when casting judgement on their past. Whilst no one is perfect, people with a wide sphere of influence – celebrities, politicians, lawmakers, etc. – absolutely must be held to a higher standard. It’s utterly deplorable that Brett Cavanaugh was even considered for the Supreme Court after the accusations leveled at him – in some ways, far worse than the lenient sentence levied against Brock Turner. And in equal measure, someone who behaves in a racist manner – be it then or now (for what it’s worth, Ertel was already a supervisor of elections in 2005) – should answer for their transgressions.

With that being said, I don’t believe that anyone – position of influence or not – should be treated differently in light of their crimes, for better or for worse. Cavanaugh and Turner should have been judged equally in the eyes of the law, and if found guilty, punished accordingly. In both cases, I don’t feel that true justice was served. As for Ertel, it’s no argument to say that 2005 was a different time, because racism is racism regardless of era. Context is important, but can’t be everything. Joke in poor taste or not, this is a person who chose a career in which he is in the public eye – and as such, has a duty to society to uphold the values that that same society deems worthy.

If there is a lesson to any of this, I think it might be this: the truth will always come out, and as such, it’s probably best to be true to yourself, and let the chips lie where they fall. I’ve been blogging since 2011, and there are probably things in my 813 posts that, in hindsight, I might’ve rather not written. Yet I can at least say, with some level of integrity, that what I’ve said was my truth, at that time, and as such shouldn’t be hidden or altered. If what I’ve said makes me reprehensible, then at least I know that’s who I am.

At the end of the day, our behaviors are what define us, and our actions over time are where judgement should lie. We all make mistakes, but a person’s true character can be told from two things: the egregiousness and the frequency of their crimes.

Can someone be forgiven for heinousness in their past? Can people truly change? Or does a person, once sinned, lose the right to repentance?

What do you think?

Brett Kavanaugh and the Proliferation of Rape Culture

I learned last week that Brett Kavanaugh is going to be voted into the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

I felt sick.

Picking my wife up from the airport, we briefly discussed it, and I had a minor revelation as to the importance of this controversial decision. My wife wondered aloud if teen boys would see this confirmation on TV, and think to themselves that it is totally okay to sexually abuse women without repercussion.

I think the damage is far more subtle, and far more wide-reaching, than a few kids watching it on television. I don’t think there are very many teenage boys who have the self-reflection to consciously – or even subconsciously – think this gives them the go-ahead to rape women. I think ‘those’ boys will try it anyway, and unfortunately, they’ll – for the most part – get away with it.

No – I think the deeper problem is the judicial bias against women reporting sexual abuse in the first place. The precedent here is that women are not to be listened to, not to be believed, and that they are to be held wholly responsible for whatever heinous acts are committed against them. Our own president openly mocked Dr. Ford, claiming that her inability to clearly remember the events indicated they were largely fabricated.

There are countless statistics indicating that rape is already grossly underreported in the United States. According to a DoJ study in 2014, 66% of rapes go unreported, and women who are frequently assaulted are less likely to report than women who have never experienced sexual assault at all. And 1/4 of all women will be raped at some point in their life.

These are numbers that are utterly unacceptable – and appointing Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is – literally – making it okay. What is the likelihood that Brett Kavanaugh will rule for the condemnation of a rapist, were the case to be brought to him and his peers? What are the odds that he would side with the rapist – perhaps suggesting that the woman ‘had it coming’, or ‘asked for it’?

The problem here is not that there are a few young men who will think it’s okay; the problem is that there are tens of millions of women who have just been told that they might as well suck it up and take it. Tens of millions of women who for decades have been turned away and dismissed, and who have now been told that at the absolute highest level of law in the country that this is what to expect.

There are a great number of men who will never understand the trauma of sexual assault. There are men who absolutely cannot comprehend that non-consensual sex leaves indelible scars in the psyche of the victim. There are, as sad as it is, men who believe they are the victim for having been caught. Men who will defend to the death that they did nothing wrong, all the while knowing that they used their privilege and their strength to take forcefully what they wanted.

So yes – I am sickened that a man like Brett Kavanaugh is now one of the supreme lawmakers of this country. I am sickened that he was even considered. And I am sickened that the testimony of a victim was considered by the highest powers of our country to be worthless, attention-seeking lies.

Is there are fix to this? Sadly, it may require women to continue to report their assaults. Because so long as men refuse to believe them, women will need to persist, to fight, and to show that they are as worthy of trust as anyone. So long as men continue to be taught that there are no consequences to their actions, women will need to defend and protect themselves.

And so long as women are raped, men will continue to to think that sex is their right.

It isn’t. No more than owning humans is a right, sexual contact is something that must be consensual. And if it isn’t – at any point – then the person forcing themselves on the other must be held accountable.

Dr. Ford – I’m sorry. I’m sorry we didn’t listen. I’m sorry that a few despicable men overpowered you – both then and now. It isn’t right. But thank you for speaking up. You gave a voice to millions who’ve been silenced for generations.

It’s time for those voices to be heard.

You Thought You Understood Clickbait. Now Read THIS.

If you’re reading this because of the headline, shame on you. Shame! I recently finished watching season 19 of South Park on Hulu. The main theme running through all ten episodes is the concept that advertisements are taking over our lives and newsfeeds, cleverly disguised as newsworthy articles. This ends up, naturally, being outrageously depicted as android-type beings, who are disposed of in humorous and violent ways.

But it made me think, as I’ve often done in the past, about the places I get my information from. Like most of us, I use Facebook, both professionally for my writing and to keep in touch with friends and family. I like it; I think it’s a useful tool that can connect people who would otherwise have great difficulty staying in touch. But Facebook, like any company, needs revenue, and they’ve chosen to get theirs from advertisements.

A lot of this takes the form of sidebar and inline advertisements, such as this one for Zume Pizza:

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I actually don’t mind these quite so much, because they are clearly marked as advertisements, and easily ignored or dismissed.

But then ‘Suggested Posts’ started happening. Take this one, for example:

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Perhaps because of my interests in science, reading and science-fiction (I’m fully aware of how companies like Facebook assess my interests, and that’s not a debate I’m willing to get into right now), Facebook has ‘suggested’ an article for me to read. But wait—it’s starting to have a somewhat suspicious feeling about it: shouldn’t an article headline give me a brief summary of the content? 33 Hilariously Absurd Feats That Movies Keep Trying to Pass Off As Legit. It sounds a little to … subjective. How do they know I’ll find it hilarious? What’s with the colloquialisms such as ‘legit’? Here’s what I found when I clicked:

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There are four advertisements on the page, and that’s just within the viewable area. The supposed article is little more than an amalgamation of screenshots with some text superimposed. It’s actually incredibly clever, because with every click of the Next button I’m served four or five new ads—and there are 66 slides (two per factoid).

This is a relatively well-constructed ad-machine. It tempts you with interesting trivia (who doesn’t like a new tidbit of information?), and then bombards you with advertisements. But then there are ones like this:

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This is absolutely dreadful, of course. Nearly everyone would recognize this as a clickbait article, but the funny thing is, they click anyway. (Note that I’m not providing links to any of these articles—your’e welcome.) This one wasn’t suggested for me—it was shared by a friend. A friend who fell for the bait. Here’s the website it takes you to:

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Wait, I’m sorry—was there supposed to be something to read there? The article itself is, when you get to it, rather trite, mundane (apologies to those involved because it does sounds like a kid was made happy for a few minutes), and poorly written. In fact, it’s entirely incidental. Articles like this flood the internet as padding for advertisements. No one wants to click on a page of ads, but they’ll happily click the ads on a page that contains even the tiniest morsel of titillating information.

The worst bit of all, though, is that supposedly reputable news sources are beginning to use this technique as well. They do it well, of course; here’s one from the BBC:

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There’s a headline that, to its credit, does give me some basic information about what the article is going to be about. There’s even an introductory topic sentence at the top. But the article, when you click on it, is nothing more than quotes and a brief video. There are less then 200 words of original text, and of those, 14% are quotes.

At least the BBC label their (few) ads clearly, but this is not news. Perhaps I’m being judgmental here (in fact, I’m sure I am), but this is pandering to the lowest common denominator. The BBC, whose other articles include headlines like “Rio Olympics 2016: US and NZ runners help each other” and “Ferocious US Fires Evict Thousands”, are better than this.

Luckily, I’ve found that the built-in News app on my iPhone actually serves—for the most part—reasonable, intelligent news articles that I’m often interested in reading. Here are the first five as of this writing:

  1. New Ford Virtual Reality App Puts Viewers At Le Mans – The Detroit News
  2. The Hazards of Lightning – Archive – The Guardian
  3. July Was Earth’s Hottest Month in Modern Times – Brief (Okay, this one’s a little iffy)
  4. Brazil Police Pull US Swimmers Fro Flight Amid Robbery Probe – Reuters
  5. Trump Reshapes Campaign In His Own Image – The Wall Street Journal

And the articles, miraculously, are ad-free! I tend to browse through the Apple News articles a couple times a week, but sometimes more often when I’m not working as hard. I find it entertaining and stimulating.

Sadly, I browse Facebook dozens of times a day. And so I get a lot more of my information from clickbait, and it depresses me. I’ve grown tired of my brain being overstimulated by involuntarily wanting to know what THIS is, or why I should avoid THESE 5 FOODS. I often contemplate shutting Facebook down entirely, but I still rely on it to manage my authorial work.

I suppose ultimately clickbait gets results, so I can’t exactly fault the webmasters for making the most of this technique. I think, rather, I wish that people were most intelligent so that solid, unbiased headlines became the norm again. But that might be a pipe dream.