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Monster, Not Monster

July 20, 2010

Is this the face of a monster?

Sure it is. We all know he’s a monster now, don’t we? He uses the N word, he uses other racial slurs, he’s verbally abusive to his partner and other women, threatens murder and rape … I could go on, but I’ll let Christopher Hitchens do it instead. (I don’t much care for the drink-soaked former Trotskyist poppinjay — as MP Joe Galloway famously called him — but he has this right.)

Yet there was a time before people saw him that way. Before he threatened to burn down Oksana’s house and rape her, before he called a police officer “sugartits,” before he made a film reviving the charge of deicide collectively on the Jewish people, before he defended his Holocaust-denying father, a lot of people saw him like this:

It’s easy to believe in what we see, and to become so convinced of it that it may take us a long time to integrate contrary evidence. Psychologists call the process “cognitive dissonance.” We believe a thing to be true, and when faced with conflicting evidence, we look for ways to square them, even rejecting the new information, rather than to discard what we think we know. Most famously, members of apocalyptic cults, when the end-of-the-world dates come and go, often do not discard what they’ve become so invested in, but explain it away and double down on their faith.

I can’t armchair analyze Whoopi Goldberg; all I can say is that this is a possibility: when she sees the Mel Gibson we’ve all now seen, she can’t bear to conclude that the narrow picture she had of him, hanging out at her home and playing with her children, was a distorted picture of the whole, and that she deeply misjudged him. So she’s defending him. There may be other reasons; I’ve accepted that I don’t understand what the hell Whoopi is thinking since she defended Polanski. My point is, we all have a limited view of the people around us. We know them, but only in part, only in our relationship with them, only the parts we can see. People who are monsters may not be monsters to us.

Is this the face of a monster?

He doesn’t look like a monster. Until a very short time ago, nobody I know on the left had heard anything that would suggest he wasn’t the person he seemed to be: wonky, maybe a little stiff, but a committed, concerned progressive.

That may be true, and yet it may also be true that he sexually assaulted a massage therapist, attempting by turns to cajole, bully, beg, and intimidate her into sexual activity. I think for a lot of progressives, it’s hard to accept that we’ve misjudged people; perhaps the feeling is not that they’ve failed us but that we’ve failed to see what we should have seen. Or perhaps it is too hard for people to let the images of their heroes tarnish. (As fan of the Oakland Raiders from my early childhood, I’m perhaps somewhat resistant to this. Growing up, I didn’t so much have heroes as antiheroes, and so I respect people for what they do, but I never embrace them fully because there are aspects of all people that I don’t respect and won’t defend.)

The very act of rape is monstrous, both in its execution — I’ll spare the potentially triggering horror stories — and also in its concept. To commandeer the body of another person, to invade it for selfish gratification, it’s really a form of kidnapping, isn’t it? Every rape is a hostage situation, and not all the hostages get released.

We have every reason to believe that rape is not only a monstrous act, but the act of monsters. There is a group of men, perhaps in the single digits in percentage terms, that are repeat rapists, by their own admission, as long as they can avoid the dreaded R word. But these men are all-purpose monsters, accounting for a hugely disproportionate amount of the intimate partner violence and child abuse as well:

The surveys covered other violent acts, such as slapping or choking an intimate partner, physically or sexually abusing a child, and sexual assaults other than attempted or completed rapes. In the realm of being partner- and child-beating monsters, the repeat rapists really stood out. These 76 men, just 4% of the sample, were responsible for 28% of the reported violence. The whole sample of almost 1900 men reported just under 4000 violent acts, but this 4% of recidivist rapists results in over 1000 of those violent acts.

I’m fine with saying that one who does monstrous things is a monster, and the data tells me that this is true. But there is a danger there, that by calling rapists monsters we may convince people that we should be able to see them. We can’t. They look like everyone else. They certainly will give some behavioral clues, but those are subtle. The rapists fit in. If they didn’t, we would all know who they are, and all their targets would avoid them.

Jaclyn has a piece up at The Nation right now. It can’t have been easy for The Nation to speak out when the accused is a lefty standard-bearer. But they had the intellectual honesty to give Jaclyn a podium to call for serious and fair assessment of the allegations instead of a reflexive dismissal. She wrote, in part:

We want to avoid thinking about our own vulnerability so much that we weave a web of soothing fiction: she wanted it, what did she expect in her line of work, she’s obviously just after his money. And, of course: he’s a really good guy. He would never do something like that.

It’s natural to want to imagine the perpetrators of sexual violence as monsters. It’s a monstrous act, after all. And wouldn’t we all sleep easier at night if we knew that the guys who do it were as easily identifiable as we want them to be: creepy dark hulking strangers that give us the shivers as we walk by. Or, failing that, slimy sociopaths with known reputations for mistreating women.

But sexual predators aren’t monsters. They’re men. (About 98% percent of them are, anyhow.) They can be handsome and seem kind. They can be well liked. They can do you a favor and think nothing of it. They can kiss their wives in public and mean it. They can be brothers, boyfriends, best buddies, talented film directors, beloved athletes, trusted priests and even (prepare to clutch your pearls) lefty political heroes who seem like genuinely nice guys. What they all have in common is the sociopathic rush they get from controlling another person’s body.

What’s more, our fierce attachment to the idea of the obvious monster has the exact opposite of the intended effect: it puts all of us in great danger. Every time we indulge it, we give cover to the actual sexual predators among us: we discourage victims from reporting because we’ve already told them we won’t believe them, and, when charges do get filed, we’ve already encouraged the police, prosecutors, judges and juries to make like we do and find whatever reasons they can to dismiss, diminish and deny justice. All of which means that these guys – these nice-seeming guys in your community – are free to attack again and again. Which, research shows, they do.

[Emphasis supplied.]

Monsters, and not monsters. Regular people that are nice to children and small animals, tip well and bring attention to important causes may also be misogynists, rapists, abusers, racists … all the wrong that people are capable of is not concentrated among people who look like they mean to do harm. The people who do the most harm do it, in part, because they can walk among us and not look like monsters. Monsters don’t look like monsters. They look like the rest of us.

The most important thing I think I’ve ever said on this blog is what I said at the end of Meet The Predators:

Change the culture. We are not going to pull six or ten or twelve million men out of the U.S. population over any short period, so if we are going to put a dent in the prevalence of rape, we need to change the environment that the rapist operates in. Choose not to be part of a rape-supportive environment. Rape jokes are not jokes. Woman-hating jokes are not jokes. These guys are telling you what they think. When you laugh along to get their approval, you give them yours. You tell them that the social license to operate is in force; that you’ll go along with the pact to turn your eyes away from the evidence; to make excuses for them; to assume it’s a mistake, of the first time, or a confusing situation. You’re telling them that they’re at low risk.

We can’t start from the premise that we can’t believe Al Gore would do such a thing. We have to start with the question, “did he do this?” We heve to be willing to accept that if he did, he’s not the person we thought he was, and he doesn’t deserve our support.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2010 10:16 pm

    this, in combination with shifting the focus so that the other person (victim/survivor) is also a monster (ie gold digger), except we should’ve know she was the monster first, because she is a woman

  2. July 21, 2010 1:15 pm

    Yes, this. I think this is probably the hardest thing to accept or absorb about predators. That they’re human beings. It’s such a mindfuck to think that someone who has feelings and a daily life could do something like that to another person. But that’s the reality and I think you’re right that we all need to face it if we’re going to stop these things from happening.

  3. R-Cop permalink
    July 24, 2010 10:43 am

    I think you really hit the nail on the head with this:

    “perhaps the feeling is not that they’ve failed us but that we’ve failed to see what we should have seen”

    I suspect it’s easier to be convinced that the person we respect didn’t actually do anything wrong than it is to deal with the guilt of having held someone who committed these monstrous acts in such high regard. But we need to look past our own discomfort and hold people accountable for their actions, even if they also did some really amazing things too.


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