Will’s Affront (An Untimely Post)

The debut of a new category of post at this site – the Untimely Post, usually begun in the heat of some ongoing controversy, withheld until memories have mostly faded and tempers mostly cooled – occurs here in a somewhat contradictory form, since George Will has recently been declared “Misinformer of the Year” by discourse watchdog Media Matters, though how exactly George Will’s controversial comments on a supposed “culture of victimhood,” with which Media Matters begins, qualify as “misinformation” is unclear, since the main informational content of an opinion, as opposed to its basis, is simply that an individual happens to possess it. In conveying that fact about himself, Will was, it seems to me, accurately informing his readers.

Will’s June 6 column was treated, and as we see is still being treated, as an attempt to minimize sexual assault, but, when in the column’s most controversial lines Will refers to a “coveted” “victim status,” he is not referring specifically, as his critics alleged and still allege, to sexual assault, but to a general category of so-called “microaggressions.” The subject of rape does appear in the column prominently, but in relation to the difficulties that college administrators face when they adopt the “progressive” approach to policy, law, and morality that is Will’s focus in this column, as more generally in his writing for many years. He does grant first position in his argument to an incident involving unwanted sexual intercourse, said to have occurred in student housing at Swarthmore College, as narrated by the victim-accuser in lurid detail. Yet the only choice other than to look away from the picture is to examine it, and the reader of his column or of this post proceeds in the face of a clear “trigger warning.”

***

Will presents the incident and its aftermath as follows:

Consider the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. “sexual assault.” Herewith, a Philadelphia magazine report about Swarthmore College, where in 2013 a student “was in her room with a guy with whom she’d been hooking up for three months”:

“They’d now decided — mutually, she thought — just to be friends. When he ended up falling asleep on her bed, she changed into pajamas and climbed in next to him. Soon, he was putting his arm around her and taking off her clothes. ‘I basically said, “No, I don’t want to have sex with you.” And then he said, “OK, that’s fine” and stopped. . . . And then he started again a few minutes later, taking off my panties, taking off his boxers. I just kind of laid there and didn’t do anything — I had already said no. I was just tired and wanted to go to bed. I let him finish. I pulled my panties back on and went to sleep.’”

Six weeks later, the woman reported that she had been raped.

Will’s critics take the position that the incident obviously qualifies as rape or as what should be considered or, not necessarily the same thing, termed rape. Will does not directly state his own view on that question, but does not need to do so: If a given act is something other than obviously rape, it cannot be rape or assault in the traditional concept as Will wishes to preserve it.

Somewhat excruciatingly, if familiarly, a question evoking incidents painful even to contemplate, much less to undergo, turns into an abstract if not abstruse exercise in semantics. Yet this torturous interaction of the brutally real and the intellectually remote is unavoidable in the search for justice, since that search is also a matter inexorably of definition at the limits of experience, in relation to narratives of real events.

The first association or connotation of the word “rape” is visible in its shared root with the word “rapid.” Despite the best efforts of those seeking a new definition, the utterance of the word “rape” may still tend to connote a sudden attack. Even the more generalized term “sexual assault” refers us if subtly to a “leap” – via “saltus.” The word “rape” also refers to seizure, eventually to “plunder” as in the literary term “rapine”: “Rape” in the old sense seems to imply destructive dispossession, the value of the lost “good” to be derived from the value of sexual exclusivity to an existing or prospective mate – thus the difficulty in prosecuting or under the old moral regime even of conceiving of the rape of a woman by her husband (or in a somewhat parallel manner of a prostitute or “slut”). Along the same lines, the injury of rape would be treated as neither exclusively nor in many cultures even primarily suffered by the immediate victim, but by the family or clan as an enterprise. Cultures and socio-economic systems vary too widely to make generalization easy, but this loss was for an extended period expressed in Anglo-American culture, for example, with the archaic idea of “ruination” of virtue.

In the Swarthmore sexual assault narrative – at least as reported – there is at most only a ghost or echo, an affectless afterthought, of a violent act, hardly witnessed even by its theoretical victim. The Swarthmore woman has come forward, and has asserted that her story as rendered in Philadelphia magazine left out key details of the violence of the assault, and Will might therefore be faulted for undue credulity regarding a journalistic record of a purported crime, but the felt need to amend the story tends to support his underlying point, which was that the narrative as first related, and as initially received by his critics, described something different from rape as still widely understood. In that initial version of the story, the narrator herself diminishes the wrong done to her, providing her alleged attacker with various forms of mitigation: We are told that the woman had been “hooking up for three months” with the man. The woman expresses apparent uncertainty about an alteration of their relationship under a possible new agreement “just to be friends.” She further explains that she was not except under a broad definition “assaulted.” Rather than being, as it were, leapt upon, she of her own volition climbed into bed with the young man. When he made an apparently second set of sexual advances, she “just kind of laid there,” gave into a feeling of being “just tired,” then “let him finish,” and, finally, “went to sleep.”

When, six weeks later, she reported the incident as a rape, she appeared to be asking others to attach a much higher value to the harm – the pain, injury, loss, or dispossession – than she herself had ever done except in the act of reporting it. In other words, whether or not the victim’s eventual estimation of the wrong done to her is the one we would prefer her to have reached at the time, and for others to respect from now on, she herself apparently remained unsure of the wrong even in her own mind. In her telling it made barely any impression on her, and by her own minimizing testimony she puts herself somewhat in the position of a homeowner charging burglary while admitting her house was empty of valuables – or so a jury in declining to convict, police in declining to arrest, a district attorney in declining to prosecute, and friends, acquaintances, the public, administrators, and finally a conservative pundit in refusing to take her truly seriously as a victim, or as a victim of a serious crime under law and custom, might determine. It is perhaps indicative that, even while taking the narrator’s side against Will’s “offense,” Ordinary Times guest author “zic,” a self-identified rape “survivor,” compares the crime or alleged crime to a theft of “beer money.” Zic’s point is that, whatever else we might say about the Swarthmore incident, it is undeniably a crime, just as such a theft would still be a theft, but some will find the notion of “petty rape” (something like “micro-rape”) obnoxious, and few to no observers will assert that the Swarthmore man deserves the same treatment as the people George Will considers really rapists.

The Swarthmore woman or perhaps her supporters seem to expect the world to sympathize without hesitation and to the utmost, though not with her feelings as she describes or neglects to describe them, but rather with how we think she or someone in her position ought to feel, or might come to feel after properly monitored self-study. We are left to wonder if Swarthmore rape or progressive-feminist rape is what the conservative columnist still thinks of as rape, but with physical pain or trauma and all social and economic harms subtracted. The harm seems to be a mainly if not entirely abstract harm whose character may be difficult to explain: a kind of symbol inscribed in mind and memory mimetically, a harm of having once been reduced to one’s physical or “natural” being, helplessly vulnerable in one’s physical person. The harm at first seems to consist solely in an affront to the victim’s dignity, to an idea of self in relation to society and particular social relations – a subversion on the level of a social-political or ethical concept or ideal whose existence and authenticity are to be presumed absolute and irreducible. The typically female victim is forced to see herself as deprived of this ideal, as physically and therefore actually inferior. The perpetrator of Swarthmore rape forces his victim to know herself as imprisoned in objectivity, to experience her embodiment as her negation. Her future ability to form satisfying personal and specifically sexual relationships may further be said to be impaired, so her freedom has been constrained, specifically in the sense that her command over the consumption of her personal sexual capital, according to the libertine’s promise a source of pleasure for pleasure’s sake, relating according to the behaviorist to a mostly vestigial but powerfully felt instinctive need, has been compromised.

We may hesitate before any further attempts to characterize what this re-conception does or does not retain of the older idea, since any such investigation undertaken without the utmost care will appear to constitute victim-shaming, minimization of crime, and re-infliction of injury. The same charge will be made especially against anyone, regardless of care or credentials, who suggests that a sincere interest in reducing incidents of the general type would require some re-valorization of exclusivity and a removal of sexual activity from the realm of things no more significant than a good night’s sleep or beer money. The specific conservative claim remains, however, that this de-valuation precedes and observably conditions the crime.

***

An American conservative attitude toward the nature of crime, as committed by individuals against individuals, and as naming specific acts – not “rape is rape” and “no is no,” but “only real rape is rape” and “only a real no is no” – may prevent conservatives from saying what they really mean: that in fact they agree about the existence of a rape culture, but disagree as to who the real perpetrators have been and are. Will comes very close to breaking this taboo, to saying that the real culture of rape is the one that produces a drowsily passive shrug rather than measures of self-protection commensurate to imputed harms. The accusation is obvious as a secondary implication of the title of his column, “Colleges become the victims of progressivism.” Under a continuing metaphorical attenuation, this accusation could itself be treated, or in fact is treated, as yet another version of the crime, with each accusation and counter-accusation yet another assault compounding and aggravating prior offenses leading further and further back – eventually all the way to the Garden of Eden and Leda and the Swan as versions of the same story.

Thus warned or perhaps enticed, we might consider these two images of work by Michelangelo for proscription at any university campus:

04_3ce4

Michelangelo_Buonarroti_-_Leda_and_the_Swan_-_WGA15230These last references may be taken as further reinforcing Will’s point, but I do not intend them that way, though I do wonder if illustrating this post with images representing these stories, subjects of religious, erotic, and religious-erotic art for thousands of years, would now count as provocative if put before a larger audience. The needed impossible critique, of being-in-the-world weighing down on all our bodies but especially women’s bodies like an indifferent animal god, the birth of tragedy and all our woe, would unfold as the reductio ad absurdum of trigger warnings, a warning demanding to be read, against itself – the ultimate untimely and unwanted, perversely correct post.


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40 comments on “Will’s Affront (An Untimely Post)

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  1. a viewpoint that considers it not to be a felonious act when one person initiates intercourse with a regular partner who is not eager at the time but who is cajoled into (passively) engaging.

     

     

    • Ah – now I think I see what you mean. It seems to me that precisely what you describe would be within the outer limit of the crime of rape according to the new definition, and to be appalled with the ghastly Will over his expressing his view does seem at least to evoke the distance between political correctness and how people live.

      • a Yankee fan, lounging on the rug and enjoying Tommy John tossing  slowballs, was suddenly seized by his ankles and dragged away from the television, utters words of surprise and protest, but a determined woman cared not and yanked the trousers from his skinny legs, sank down upon him and had her way with him because her thermometer informed her that it was the optimal time to conceive a son.

         

        had he been a fully-committed feminist and less of a Yankee fan, he could have had her arrested rather than watch the end of the game.

         

        turned out he enjoyed the consequences of this sexual assault …who also became a fan of baseball.

         

         

  2. If I’m reading your interpretation of George Will & those who agree with him on this correctly, their view is effectively that The Real Blame falls on modern civilization failing to interpret the human body itself as a curse or object of shame as their chosen religious & cultural traditionalism would prefer.

    Not exactly a surprise, and I’d say you’re spot on in interpreting them. However, the reason that it’s considered “unspeakable” is that it’s a humongous insult to the very concept of individual agency & self determination, not to mention widely missing the point. To say in the context of a rape allegation that people should not like sex so much is a non-sequitur.

    • if I’m reading your reply correctly, you’re  not focusing upon that which I wrote in order to discuss larger points that a poor, simple frog hasn’t raised…..

       

      …much as people decrying an interpretation of a particular incident decry that interpretation in pursuit of imposing an uniform response to classes of sexual interactions.

      the view from down here is that criminalizing actions (or demonizing opinions) requires some attention to the particular.

    • Not a source of shame, b-p, necessarily, or only in the sense that “shame” and sexual exclusivity originate in certain organic realities of childbearing and -raising in pre-modern environments – when infant mortality was a leading cause of death, first for babies, and then for mothers; when paternity was always inherently uncertain; and when simple, effective, inexpensive birth control wasn’t widely available. Simply to presume, however, that the old regulation of sexual desire is completely obsolete, or that the initial adaptations to the removal of the old problems are good, balanced, and sustainable, may be mistaken.

      The “Real Blame” in conservatives’ eyes would be connected to the destruction of virtue, which used to be one effect of rape, an injury to both the direct victim and all of her relations, and now is in this conservative view a cause of rape or what is called rape, and in another sense is already a kind of slow-motion achievement of the same destructive effect. To put it baldy, in case I wasn’t clear enough in the post, Will et all seem to think and to be saying or coming very close to saying that progressivism produces an equivalent of rape, that the Swarthmore woman was already as-though-raped, or “destroyed,” and that, if there is a rape culture, then the hook-up culture is the real rape culture. The event that six weeks later the victim chooses to view as rape would in this scheme be the culmination of an extended process of degradation. Some radical feminists might once have agreed in some ways.

      • A conveniently defined virtue of theirs that completely disregards possible disagreement. Oh, and seems to always fall on the woman.

        What about the moral character of the type of person who treats the bodies of others as if they’re means to an end, unattached to a free willed human being who makes the decisions for its use? Where’s the shame on them?

        • Don’t see how the position “disregards” possible disagreement any more than any other position strongly held, or held at all. To believe one thing as opposed to another is inherently or implicitly to hold the other position in lower “regard” in some sense.

          As for a full cross-comparative critique of the history and theory of the sexual division of labor, I’ll hold off on that – though I recall a past bigly pointless discussion, somewhat pointlessly discussed here: https://ckmacleod.com/2013/06/06/not-discussing-a-conservative-understanding-of-the-sexual-division-of-labor/  Same goes for the presumptions underlying “unattached to a free-willed human being who makes decisions for its use.” In the meantime, presuming that men simply “had it better” under the old regime removes some of the best arguments for the modern one, it seems to me.

            • The question isn’t simply whether the guy did something shameful, even setting aside remnant uncertainty about what actually took place. The question is also whether what he is thought or described to have done is so shameful it deserves the name of a crime that until relatively recently was still punishable by death in some states. The question is also whether that other guy, George Will, deserves to be shamed for asking that other question under the larger question and suggesting that the answer ought to be “no.” A third question might be whether some degree of complicity in the crime or crimes can be assigned to the woman in particular and to her self-styled supporters in a different way, and whether refusing to do so isn’t to deprive them of the same meaningful agency that you seem to want to stand up for. What makes the question even more complex is that the meaning and presumable purposes of “shame” are also subject to change and variation.

  3. What I find most interesting about the original post is the suggestion that “rape” may no longer be a meaningful notion. I’m not certain whether the intention of the piece was to persuade the reader to that effect or was rather meant to be something of an evocative provocation, but I must admit that it is coming close to having a persuasive effect upon me. That persuasion, in turn, invites speculation as to whether or not the term “woman” possesses any longer a meaningful significance.

    Under any dispensation of meanings or significances, I think I would have a hard time sympathizing with the Swarthmore coed–let alone in the contemporary dispensation, where all vestiges of traditional morality have been swept away only to be replaced by a vacuous and manipulative “ethics of consent”. Like the very notion of “rape” itself, which is something of a spectral outline or silhouette of a distinction that was meaningful in a former epoch, we may soon find that “consent” too is nothing but a perverse mirage tormenting the minds of those dying of thirst.

    The coed was “hooking up” with her partner for three months beforehand. That is to say, she is a “hooker”. Hookers typically derive remuneration from the provision of their services, but it would seem that the Swarthmore coed preferred to “hook” for free. She might even be likened to a volunteer “comfort woman” doing her part to pacify the insistent drives of young male college students–that is, if the term “woman” is still a meaningful distinction.

    As the original post implies, I sincerely doubt whether it is at all possible in this day and age to “rape” a “woman”. Sex in our time has all the dignity and preciousness of passing gas. It is possible, I suppose, to make “rape” illegal and impermissible in the same way that it might be possible to make farting illegal and impermissible–but I don’t think the one prohibition could be any more substantive than the other.

    I mean, imagine if the latest campus inanity was to vilify farting and to protest against a “fart culture”. Interestingly, since farting is a conduct overwhelmingly associated with the male of the species, any movement against an ostensible “fart culture” would serve essentially the same politically manipulative purpose that the campaign against “rape” serves. Nevertheless, like the current campaign against so-called rape, it would lack intellectual substantiveness–even if many poor lads were made to suffer onerous sanctions for the “crime” of passing gas.

    But I suspect that “rape” is a notion that will soon go the way of “sodomy”. Sodomy used to denote an unpardonable offense, a “crime” that dared not speak its name. Today, however, respected pundits like Andrew Sullivan openly write about the pleasure they derive from “sodomizing” other men and being “sodomized” by them in turn. Distinguished figures like President Obama urge the citizenry to celebrate “sodomy”. Those who still oppose “sodomy” are increasingly thought of as retrograde villains, deserving of misfortune. It may be that, in time to come, respectable men will openly flaunt the pleasure to be derived from “raping” “women”–and “women” too will boast of the enjoyments of being “raped”. Perhaps a future U.S. President will extol the virtues of “rape” and “rapists”–and vilify the reactionary holdouts who continue to oppose such wholesome activity.

    (Throughout this comment, I have placed the term “woman” in quotation marks because, like “sodomy” or “rape”, it seems to have only a nostalgic significance. In so far as “woman” denotes a specifically feminine type of human being, something distinct from a female brute or animal, it wouldn’t appear any longer to be meaningful. Of course, it might still do service as signifying something that is formally human (in the sense of having the typical “human” appearance) and possessing the female genitalia (in the sense of that kind of genitalia which are passive in the sex-act). But just as no one in their right mind would be concerned about a barnyard hen being mounted by an aggressive rooster–or fretting about the lack of “consent” involved therein–it would seem anachronistic to be concerned today about analogous phenomena occurring in regard to “women”.)

    • Wade:

      Sodomy used to denote an unpardonable offense, a “crime” that dared not speak its name. Today, however, respected pundits like Andrew Sullivan openly write about the pleasure they derive from “sodomizing” other men and being “sodomized” by them in turn. Distinguished figures like President Obama urge the citizenry to celebrate “sodomy”.

      I can’t recall Obama urging a celebration of sodomy. I can recall him however saying that he no longer sees a problem with same sex marriage — which is a good thing since no one has any business infringing on the relations of consenting adults regardless of what they think.

      The days when people were routinely jailed or even murdered for simply exercising their sexual preference were terrible, and deserved to die out. The shift you lament is towards individual liberty, may we never turn around on this path.

      • The days when people were routinely jailed or even murdered for simply exercising their sexual preference were terrible, and deserved to die out. The shift you lament is towards individual liberty, may we never turn around on this path.

        Good grief!

      • bpsycho:

        The days when people were routinely jailed or even murdered for simply exercising their sexual preference were terrible, and deserved to die out.

        Homosexuals were never “routinely” jailed or murdered in the United States–that’s a self-indulgent fantasy.

        For my own part, I think life in a country that did routinely jail–or even kill–homosexuals would be infinitely preferable to life in contemporary libertarian America. But I suppose that, too, is a self-indulgent fantasy.

        • Sheez, WM – sometimes you say the most insanely unpleasant things. The obvious answer is “there are places you can go where that is the policy.” You might respond that you do not like those places, but a) you did isolate this one particular feature as “infinitely” preferable, a statement that leaves no room for adjustment in relation to merely finitely important concerns, and b) it is pure presumption, with no basis in experience and no reasonable basis in ideas, that whatever you might find unpleasant or unwelcoming about those other available destinations (Iran, Uganda, the areas under control of the Islamic State come first to mind) is related by happenstance rather than necessity to regimes of sexual discipline enforced by threats of extreme punishment.

            • …which would be an argument for keeping it to yourself. You “suppose” it is a “self-indulgent fantasy,” implying that you believe it may actually be something else instead or as well, an implication already present in your decision to share it. Whatever the explanations or purposes, once such statements exit the realm of subjectively entertained fantasy and are turned into common property, they have to be confronted, and as soon as possible: Otherwise, like a house-pet’s mistake on the living room carpet, they leave a stain. The easiest thing for a blogger with bills to pay and a reasonable concern for his own reputation will be delete with extreme prejudice. I choose instead, for now, to take the time to respond directly, but I’d appreciate it if you’d keep the self-indulgence – and parody, and exaggeration, and so on – to a minimum, and restrict yourself as much as possible to statements you are prepared to defend.

              • Look, MacLeod, I don’t intend to continue to pester you about this–but, despite your many virtues as a textual analyst, you seem to struggle a bit with the rhetorical dimensions thereof.

                Surely, you couldn’t have failed to miss that the real point of that exercise was to critique, in a roundabout and provocative way, bpsycho’s silly claim that gays were “routinely” jailed and murdered in the United States in the past.

                As to deletion with extreme prejudice–may I remind you that this very day you have made a rather blustery vow that you aren’t going to be agitated by miscreancy like mine?

                • What I’ve been trying to tell you, WM, is that these matters – race and sexual morality, to name two – that you seem to want to discuss are already provocative enough. Further provocation overheats the machine already running near extreme “tolerances.” That you continue to add fuel to the fire despite repeated requests makes me wonder if you do really want to allow such a discussion to occur, or instead are driven to sabotage it, and so I’m forced to consider doing what I don’t want to do.

    • You take the point to an extreme, WM. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry or both, or whether I or we should be thanking you for the performance or executing some form of blog-suitable punishment or both.

      The understanding and use of the word “rape” evolving in the way you describe, as further movement along an already observable trajectory, would not be unprecedented, in somewhat the same way that euphemisms, especially ones related to sexual activity, often have turned into prohibited speech in time, or that prohibited terms, originally the worst curses available, may become everyday speech, or, often in our culture, remain prohibited at one table and at the next table over a virtually obligatory sign of belonging. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn today, or tomorrow, that one or another youth subculture was already using the term in just the way you describe. I think it was in a novel by Jerzy Kosinski, possibly COCKPIT, which I would have read several aeons ago, that a naive female narrator grows up using the word “rape” as a synonym for sex. I’ve also addressed the theory advanced by some radical feminists that all heterosexual intercourse is rape. The immediate context was the incest taboo, and the inability that many contemporary discussants have justifying it – see last esp. paragraph:  https://ckmacleod.com/2012/09/04/the-brady-bunch-annihilated/.

      Yet as long as we are sexual beings, there will still be significant differences between assault in general and sexual assault in particular, whatever the terminology. I removed as too preachy lines I originally wrote meant to caution those sympathetic to the conservative point of view from expressing it as a betrayal of their own concept. If the hook-up culture is in some sense a rape culture, and it matters that it is, then, even if “Swarthmore rape” isn’t rape like rape used to be, a crime has still been committed, and victims, perhaps your own children or nieces and nephews are being victimized, or are asking for empathy. Mourning for a lost order of things or lost possibility may not be encouraged by the depiction of it, or the self-depiction of those struggling to recall, evoke, or restore it or aspects of it, as merely cruel.

      Changes in the meaning of the word “woman” also follow the pattern you describe – and I think exaggerate – reflecting a simple economic process of decline in “market value” with lost relative exclusivity or scarcity. Here as in your discussion of rape, however, the offense taken at most tables in the great cafeteria will be indicative of the distance between where we actually are and where you imagine us arriving.