Moral Outrage! It’s Easy!

Posted by on Jun 7, 2016 in Journal Entries | No Comments

The recent story about an ex-Stanford swimmer/rapist is all over the internet. You can read essays galore about rape culture, find outraged tweets, and—invariably—people on right-wing talk radio defending the decision and making fun of those who feel an appropriate amount of the aforementioned outrage, whether borne from a genuine opinion or just the need to be contrary and shocking. What I want to explore are these reactions themselves. Since the sentencing was handed down, I’ve seen so many people posting about this story and it makes me wonder, what has compelled you to post?

Is it about the victim? The victim of the crime is never name in these news stories, and with good reason. In addition to not wanting to be reminded of the experience, just image what kind of attention she’d receive from people on both sides. Those that would claim to champion her would be active participants in appropriating her identity for their cause. Just think how many people have their names attached to an issue as a way of humanizing something. They provide a kind of shorthand for how we’re all supposed to feel. She’s a human being with a dynamic multi-faceted personality and a very rich life. After something like this she’d want to move on, heal and get to the rest of her life. Instead, her name would be synonymous with the misappropriation of justice. If it’s ‘for women everywhere’ then it certainly isn’t for this specific woman.

For those on the other side of it, she’d become a target. The internet is full of people, who, from the safety of a computer screen say shameful things and issue horrible threats.

So it’s not about her. She doesn’t even factor into our collective outrage; she’s completely anonymous to us. When you hear this issue discussed at large it’s always about how the rapist deserves a harsher punishment. You don’t hear very many people advocate for the victim. And while ultimately he should be severely punished for what he did to her, who is the arbiter of justice? Who is to say exactly what should be done to him for her to feel at least a semblance that appropriate punishment has been meted out?

It’s supposed to be the court system, but that has failed us in this case. It’s the nature of democracy, right? Since we can’t personally take away this mans freedom (for that’s what jail is) or give the victim some peace of mind, we entrust supposedly knowledgeable people to make those decisions for society at large. So on one side we post and discuss because we all feel the justice system is broken, but we already know this. The messed up drug laws, the way the legal system is used to advance the interests of those with power/money/influence, institutionalized racism, if this case is the first time you’ve seen how flawed and in need of repair our justice system is, you probably just woke up from a coma—welcome back by the way. Everyone has a smartphone, people treat movie trailers as entertainment, a reality TV star is running for president and the love of bacon is now a signifier of identity.

Is it this particular case? I’d say no. There have been plenty of things to produce outrage—police shootings, malfeasance in the financial industry, cheating athletes, college coaches turning a blind eye to pedophilia—this case is not an outlier, at least not looking at the details. But there is something that feels special about it. It’s catalyzing, but not polarizing. It does provide another example of privilege, but it’s not new information. If we had never heard of this case, I don’t think our view of sexism privilege and the broken court system would be any different. Occasionally something changes our collective view of the national state of affairs, but I don’t think this does; for most of us it’s more news cycle than anything.

What this does, and why we embrace it so readily, is that it provides us a step ladder for our high horse. There’s nothing ambiguous about this, and we can clearly make this kid a villain—though if he were appropriately punished for the rape, we wouldn’t be discussing this. He had no say in the sentencing, but we’re plastering his picture all over the internet. Why not the photo of the judge as well? He’s more culpable in the lenient sentencing than this kid. Also, even if the guilty party were appropriately contrite, you can’t walk up to a jail and request a longer sentence. Prison isn’t Starbucks. Would you want him to continue to violate the law in order to get more jail time? That seems absurd. You cannot advocate for a peaceful society and encourage violence at the same time.

This pimply blonde haired blue eyed white boy is the perfect touchstone for outrage because he fits the picture for white privilege and (gulp) ‘bro culture’ (ugh.) He’s a perfect metaphor. We’ve been discussing privilege in the most mainstream of culture for the last five years or so, but it’s so fraught.

Everyone has a degree of privilege, and it seems it is only evil to the extent that it’s institutionalized and how great the disparity is. Far few people care about the privilege relationship between those that are homeless and those that are not, though it is a kind of privelege. We idolize sports heroes and movie stars, but a lot of their success can be traced back to circumstances beyond their control—being at the right place at the right time, being born smart, pretty, talented, strong, or having some special set of circumstances that sets you up for success through struggle.

This story, while terrible, allows us to feel good about ourselves. In a world full of complexity and moral grey areas, this is a very easy pitch to hit. And when you have a Facebook or twitter account you have the added bonus of showing off your morality to your friends and acquaintances.

This young man deserves to be removed from society for a long time for what he did, as well as an example for others. The judge should probably be removed from the bench, he’s clearly not fit to represent societal values. We need to be aware that this kind of thing goes on and we need to discuss and we need to teach to move society forward. We need to acknowledge her (the victims’) pain—and the pain of everyone who has had dignity, agency and peace of mind stolen from them. We need to have hard conversations.

But before you post and rant, before you link to a million different articles and saying “this” as if you’re making a point that no one sees, just think of how easy it is to do it. And is your gesture more than just beating your chest? Complex moral problems, the ones worth tackling, are never so clear cut, and can’t be solved by clicking ‘share.’