Monday, March 18, 2013

Who you are is what you do--but what you do can change

My corner of the internet has been full of justified outrage at the sympathetic slant of much news coverage of the convictions in the Steubenville rape case. CNN, among others, chose to dwell on the emotional devastation of the two star football players--the rapists--and the dashing of their once-promising futures. I share the outrage. Whatever errors their victim may have made, they were errors merely in judgment; none of her errors involved treating another human being as an object, as a disposable toy for pleasure and amusement. Any coverage of the case that downplays the wrongs done to her while inviting our sympathies for the perpetrators is indefensible.

But this is not to say there's no place for sympathy for the perpetrators.

Let me be clear: they deserve their convictions, and whatever follows from those convictions--including never playing football again, not getting into the colleges of their choice, being registered sex offenders, and having this case turn up for the rest of their lives whenever someone Googles them. The perpetrators' apparent remorse and tearful apologies don't absolve them of their crime or entitle them to forgiveness--either the victim's or the public's.

However, although they did a monstrous thing, that doesn't mean they are, in some absolute or final way, monstrous people. At the same time, hand-wringing over the perpetrators' lost "potential" is not the way to support them or emphasize their humanity. Focusing on what good boys they are doesn't allow us to acknowledge, to really acknowledge, that someone can be a good person and still do something terrible. And it also doesn't provide a path toward repentance and growth.

As a culture, we're obsessed with the idea that we have some kind of core, essential nature--and usually that nature is good. And when we (or those we like) do something bad, we're unable to assimilate that information. I'm not really a bad person! Or, okay. I did that one bad thing. But I'm really sorry! And can't you tell that I'm actually a good person? (And if the answer is no, it's the other person who's victimizing us by denying our essentially good nature and virtuous intentions.)

We see this all the time in discussions of racism or sexism (and I've even talked about it in connection with plagiarism): a person knows, deep down, that he couldn't be racist. Therefore, it's impossible that he said or did something racist. And how dare you call him that offensive slur, racist? The perpetrators and their supporters can't imagine them as "rapists," and--as I written before--I understand why. The term suggests an unchanging state, a psychological disorder, a permanent condition.

If you rape someone, you are a rapist. But that need not be your primary identity.

So the adults in Steubenville who feel so sympathetic for the perpetrators are not helping them by telling them what good guys they are--much less how they've been wronged by the system, or how their only mistake was circulating the story and images via text message and social media. Anyone who sees the perpetrators as good guys with potential needs to help them deliver on that potential by telling them, frankly, that they did a terrible thing and deserve to pay a penalty, but that they can become better people, that their story isn't over, that they can learn and grow and still contribute good to the world.

I don't know these kids. I know nothing about their potential or their essential nature. But neither does anyone else. It's what they do that matters.


phd me said...

Very well said, Flavia!

What Now? said...

An excellent post, Flavia. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I really love this. I keep trying to articulate a similar thought with respect to bullying but I've never been able to say it quite this well.

Anonymous said...

I'm no fan of the rapists, but am curious about the statement they aren't "entitled to forgiveness". Really? Do we know that?

Perhaps they haven't sought forgiveness. Perhaps it hasn't been offered.

But I would be hesitant to claim they aren't entitled to forgiveness, especially since you go on to claim their redemption ought to be possible.

Thanks for the post.

Flavia said...


You've misunderstood. I said their regret (in and of itself) does not automatically entitle them to any individual's forgiveness.

I'm not saying they aren't forgivable, or even deserving of forgiveness. I hope they are or will be. But even when someone is really and genuinely sorry, he doesn't just get forgiveness from his victim in some instantaneous and magical way. None of us does.

As for cosmic or divine forgiveness, that's beyond my purview.

Cat Winchester said...

Very well said.

I think our binary way of thinking in terms of good or bad/evil is actually quite harmful in terms of growing as people. Even the baddest of people will have done good acts in their lives. Just look at any time a serial killer is arrested; the neighbours never come out and say "i always knew he was rotten to the core" they say how they cant believe it, how he was such a nice boy, how he always carried groceries for an elderly neighbour. Granted, they may have done those things in order to fit in with the rest of society but they still did nice things sometimes.

To 'other' criminals in this way, as inherently bad or pure evil, makes it more comfortable to live our lives, because the people we know aren't pure evil, therefore they must be good people.

Yet statistics, such as 8/10 women who are murdered are killed by someone that they know, or that most paedophiles are known by and liked by their victims families, should be proof enough that those closest to us are often the most likely to do us (or those we love) harm.

Until we realise that bad people can do good things, and that good people can do bad things, we are blind to so many dangers.