Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How should we talk about violent crime?



We live in a culture in which violence is entertainment, sexual violence more so. Movies such as  "I spit on Your Grave" and "Saw" to television shows like "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," make abuse and violence titillating. Maybe this is okay, I don't know. The question goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle asking why human beings are entertained by tragic plays. Why do human beings enjoy watching bad things happen to other people? Does it make us bad? Does liking a tragedy mean we enjoy it when others suffer or does this kind of entertainment serve a special purpose? These are the questions that philosophers have asked for melinnia.

Whatever the answers, it would be a lot easier to claim violent entertainment was okay if we had a means for talking about actual victims while respecting who they are and what they went through -- if we could find a means for discussing, reporting, and considering the real crimes without confusing them with entertainment and without, as the old phrase goes, blaming the victim. There are a lot of crimes in the world and we pay a lot more attention to the perpetrators than the people they harm.

Case in point, the reporting of a gang-rape of an 11-year old girl in Texas. I found about it from a facebook post linking to a New York Times article and found the article itself to be a problem. I won't go into details of the case, but here is what I responded on the thread:

‎“[From the article] It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”

and

"Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said."

[My comment] It's nice to know that we should feel bad for the boys and blame the girl for how she dressed. Thanks for clearing that up. Ugh. "
After I posted this, someone pointed me to a very interesting blog entry with similar but more detailed comments about the article. I'm obviously in sympathy with the blogger's perspective that the journalist got the narrative all wrong. The entry claims that this is quite common in rape reports. I'm not qualified to say, but it is certainly true that the media did not handle well the sexual assault of the journalist Lara Logan in Egypt during the recent protests.    

But there are real complicated issues here (and ones worth exploring in a field called philosophy of journalism). How are we supposed to talk about perpetrators, culpability, and the forces that influence them? How are we supposed to talk about the power of the group dynamic that, on the one hand, makes us less of an individual, but, on the other hand, makes us more of who we might really be? How are we supposed to talk about the impact of crimes like this on the communities they happen in? Grand Forks hasn't been the same since Dru Sjodin was kidnapped, attacked and murdered. It just hasn't. This needs to be talked about.

At the same time, shouldn't all of those things be subordinated to the victim's needs? Perhaps the journalist should tell the victim's (or victims') story first and then add the other stuff later. As far as I can tell, this article was the first one in the New York Times about the incident. Maybe it should have been about the crime itself and how the victim is doing, rather than about other people and the perpetrators, and then afterward, or in side bars, could the other stories be told. Again, I don't have close to any answers about this. But this doesn't mean it's not worth talking about. (My colleague Gayle Baldwin is spending much of her career telling the story of a young woman murdered in Newark and the silence that followed that act. (Scroll down to the fourth entry on this page.) 

I will say this in the author's defense: maybe he wrote the article the way he did because confronting such brutal victimization of a child is just too difficult. Maybe, as a journalist, coming face to face with such pain, suffering, and violence takes its toll, and handling it indirectly is both easier to write and easier to read. If this was indeed a factor in his decision, my response would simply be that these sorts of things shouldn't be easy to write or read about. If it does become so, maybe's the crime isn't being taken seriously enough. Maybe as fellow citizens, maybe as fellow human beings, we're supposed to feel some of the victim's anguish and suffering. Maybe this is what it means to live together, in a community, as one people. And maybe helping us feel is as much a part of the journalist's role as making us think. 

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7 comments:

  1. I think there are two threads being tangled together here -- violent crimes, and violent sex crimes. Violence is permissible in our entertainment and media, whereas sex is still taboo. By combining the two, the media can titillate by focusing on the gruesome details of the sex part, even as it bungles the coverage of the crime part, under the guise that they're reporting news and justice will be done.

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  2. From the facebook conversation: my response to the above comment. I don't like to comment on here too much because I've had my say already, but I think this is an important clarification/elaboration.

    "I'm not at a point where I'm willing to claim there is a difference. I think the very use of the word "sex" in sex crime is designed to titillate (often? sometimes?). If it is true that rape is a crime of violence and not sex (and notice th...is is a conditional), then the distinction is specious. We have to ask, what useful additional information do we get from the term "violent sex crime" that we do not get from "violent crime." Other than (often prurient) sentiments, we don't know much more than we would without reading an account of the crime. I focused on rape because of the article, but certainly most of what I have said applies to most violent crimes."

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  3. My feeling is that "news" like this shouldn't be published, period. When it's written more for its entertainment value than for public safety, the story has no value. It's just another part of our throwaway culture.

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  4. "I will say this in the author's defense: maybe he wrote the article the way he did because confronting such brutal victimization of a child is just too difficult."

    It's just easier, and therefore more common in the media and in what's referred to as "conventional wisdom" to blame the victim than it is to examine why rapists feel entitled to rape people.

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  5. The Times article references "18 boys and men" as the assailants.

    "These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives".....

    Yes they do

    WHATEVER the circumstances of the attack....ANY adult who participated should "live with this for the rest of their lives" in a very small room made of concrete and steel......until the day they are dead...and I wish them long life
    TM

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  7. You should talk about these crimes candidly. And you should be clear, in a 'take-no-prisoners' way, that blaming the victim of rape, no matter what age, is a deal breaker when it comes to being friends or associates with someone.

    To Eric: I totally disagree. Not telling these stories about these crimes will only allow them to increase and flourish because the perpetrators will learn that no one is shining a light on them and exploit it to the max.

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