Thursday, June 26, 2008

Stigma as an Instrument of Protection

In the comments to this LGM post, folks are having fun noting the apparent inconsistency between how conservatives normally deal with the topic of rape ("It's largely a myth! Women want sex then cry 'rape' to avoid the consequences!"), and the discourse surrounding the Supreme Court's recently announced decision barring execution of child rapists (specifically, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's signing into law a bill which would castrate all sex offenders). One of the points raised by "Ugly in Pink" struck me in particular:
[J]uries will never want to convict anyone with this punishment in place out of either compassion or worry they've got the wrong guy. Rape convictions will plummet, and it won't effectively be a crime anymore unless you're forcibly raping a baby who wasn't too much of a slut. Which is exactly what they want.

Now, in all honesty, I don't think there's a huge contradiction in the child rape case particularly, because I don't think conservatives as a rule apply their standard rape apologia -- namely, the bitch really wanted it after all -- to children. But in general, I think this is a very insightful point, and gets at an interesting paradox in our discourse around certain horrible injustices -- namely, sometimes, the act of extreme stigmatization can actual help protect the unjust behavior from further reform.

One of the things I've noticed with regards to rape discourse is how so many people want to treat it differently from other violent crimes. Most of the reasons for this are rather bogus: it's no more he-said/she-said than many other legal problems courts deal with daily; there isn't a particularly strong incentive for women to lie about the crime being committed, and we don't display the same default cynicism towards accusers in other cases where the incentive to lie is far greater (insurance fraud for robbery and arson, for example). But one argument stands out: that the accusation of rape is so uniquely stigmatizing to the reputation of the accused that we must be extra-vigilent to guard against false reports.

And the premise -- that the accusation of rape is uniquely stigmatizing -- strikes me as surprisingly accurate. Despite the dearth of effort focused on providing justice to actual rape victims (not to mention prevention efforts), the abstract language we use is one of virulent condemnation -- as in Gov. Jindal's overwrought castration plan. But, far from being in tension with the anemic concrete protections for victims of rape, the stigmatizing rhetoric actually helps sustain a climate in which citizens are hesitant to take action. As Ugly in Pink says, raising the rhetorical heat to such high degrees makes jurors reluctant to convict, particularly when that means no choice but assigning draconian penalities.

Now one might say that these crimes are truly repugnant, and thus deserve the highest depths of our condemnation. And I'd agree. But consider another case: the controversy over so-called "gray rape." Many people, including many women, have been resistent to use the rape label (hence the "gray" appellation), specifically because they don't see what happened to them as being commesurate with the ultimate evil that is rape. The intense stigma attached to rape means that we are naturally hesitant to apply the label to all but the most extreme cases, and that has the effect of shielding a great number of violent sexual assaults from being brought to justice.

This plays into the previously blogged upon "just world" theorem, which basically describes the psychological preference (or need) most people have to believe the world is just. Given that constraint, it is impossible to believe that a given act X is a) horrifyingly, unforgivably evil and b) common and widespread. Despite Arendt's protest, we cannot truly believe that evil is that banal. The reconciliation comes by redefining X, usually by restricting it to a narrow enough band of cases so that it no longer can be seen as omnipresent.

In this way, extreme stigmatization of injustice acts as a ward for it. By virtue of our strident condemnations, we are simultaneously signaling that the events in question are abhorrent as well as aberrant. They are exceptions. They are so far beyond the ethical standards of society that they merit this extreme reaction. The implication is that the object in question cannot, by its very nature, incorporate any mainstream elements, for that would undermine the very lifeblood of the stigma.

Racism is another example of stigma operating to reify, rather than undermine, an oppressive force. Prior to the Civil Rights revolution, racist activities were common and widespread, but they were not considered to be evil. After the civil rights revolution, we began to come to terms with the magnitude of the injustice that racism represented. But to recognize that while still accounting for its pervasive presence in American society would force us to consider the possibility that our system might be fundamentally unjust ("to the bone", as Jerome McCristal Culp might have put it). Society can't function when the vast majority of persons are considered implicated in supreme evil. If I can't associate with a racist, and everyone is a racist, I can't associate with anyone. This state of affairs is untenable. So racism got redefined to only mean the most overt, shocking, horrifying aspects of White supremacy, and the rest gets a free pass.

How do we resolve this dilemma? I'm on the record as favoring lowering rhetorical heat in order to create space for more public action (in other words, I want to diminish the sentiment that all race-based wrongs, or (yes) all sex crimes, are "horrifyingly, unforgivably evil."). This doesn't mean that I believe nothing qualifies for fiery, virulent condemnation -- a lynch mob or a child rape certainly does. But if (and because) we do need to preserve our rhetorical cannons for those truly horrible events, that then impresses the need to develop a more vibrant, flexible vocabulary for discussing these sorts of wrongs. If "racism" is to mean "unforgivably evil", then we need words that describe racial injustice that do not have that connotation -- for there are acts of racial significance that are neither unforgivable nor justly ignored.


Anonymous said...

Haven't we come to grips with the idea that many human base impulses are rightly castigated as immoral or otherwise worthy of condemnation?

Thus we find it just to punish conduct, not prejudice or violent impulse. So to describe the underlying motives as "evil" may have rhetorical value as a deterrent in the broader sense of setting forth what is and is not acceptable in society, but to label perpetrators as evil is likely not to advance society's interests nor to have a beneficial effect on the wrongdoer. Whether less demonization would undermine deterrence, I guess, is the question.

PG said...

You have it exactly right with regard to both heterosexual rape and racism by whites against non-whites. However, I am not so sure that we have a tendency to think that nothing except the most obvious "stranger dragged her into an alley" and "lynched him for staying in town past sundown" acts of sexual assault and racism are condemned when they contravene these stereotypes.

For example, some of the rhetoric surrounding the Prison Rape Elimination Act indicated that certain of its supporters (particularly among the evangelical movement) think of *all* homosexual sex in prison as necessarily being rape. That is, a woman doesn't count as a rape victim unless she fought back against a stranger and sustained some injury that made it difficult for her to continue fighting; a man must be either a rape perpetrator or victim if he had sex in prison. Similarly, when black teenagers admitted to targeting white students from UVa for theft, they were called racist because they believed that white people were more likely to have valuables and money.

However, my point loses some of the comparability between the two evils of rape and racism. The accusations of racism against blacks by whites tend to be heavily tinged with "Now we'll throw it back on you," whereas the assumption that all homosexual prison sex is rape has more to do with some people's horror of homosexuality.