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Blame vs. responsibility

The New Yorker has a long, fascinating piece by Ariel Levy on the Steubenville, West Virginia rape case – a confusing affair in which teenage drinking, old town culture, and New Media hysteria combined to produce an incomprehensible mess.  The basic outlines of the case are clear enough, as a teenage girl drank enough to pass out, and was mistreated by a group of high-school athletes.  It’s not entirely clear that a sexual assault took place, because both victim and perpetrators were so drunk they don’t clearly remember what happened on the fateful night.

The entire case is so convoluted that there’s no way to do it justice with a summary.  The most arresting paragraph in the New Yorker account comes over halfway through:

In versions of the story that spread online, the girl was lured to the party and then drugged. While she was delirious, she was transported in the trunk of a car, and then a gang of football players raped her over and over again and urinated on her body while her peers watched, transfixed. The town, desperate to protect its young princes, contrived to cover up the crime. If not for Goddard’s intercession, the police would have happily let everyone go. None of that is true.

Levy’s article is entitled “Trial by Twitter,” an allusion to the heavy involvement of social media – bloggers, Twitter partisans, and even the Anonymous hacker collective – in the drive to ensure the system did not allow the perpetrators of the alleged sexual assault to get away with the crime, because they were high-school athletes.  There was much denunciation of a “rape culture” that blames the victim for such assaults.

That’s the quagmire tennis star Serena Williams wandered into, when she mentioned the Steubenville case during an interview with Rolling Stone.  “I’m not blaming the girl,” said Williams, “but if you’re 16 years old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you don’t take drinks from other people.”

Reports of these remarks brought a tidal wave of criticism down on Williams’ head.  Within 24 hours, she claimed that she had been misquoted, and apologized to anyone offended by her comments.  “What I supposedly said is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.”

Was that sentiment not sufficiently covered by Williams explicitly stating “I’m not blaming the girl” during her interview?  Is it really impossible to perceive the good clean common sense in her admonition that 16-year-old girls should avoid getting smashed at wild parties, without indicting her as an advocate of “rape culture” and burning her at the stake?

“The Steubenville rape victim had been brutally abused, raped, and then publicly humiliated when images of that assault were shared on Facebook and other websites,” wrote Allison Samuels at the Daily Beast.  “Was Serena really so cold and unsympathetic?”

Well, no, she wasn’t cold and unsympathetic at all.  True icy callousness would involve telling teenage girls it’s fine to get drunk at parties, while all the boys had better be on their best behavior.  I would submit that failure to impart the wisdom offered by Serena Williams – a role model, one of the most admired women in America – is cold and unsympathetic.  That’s “non-judgmentalism” taken to absurd, dangerous lengths.

For far too long, adults have been intimidated out of giving moral and practical advice to young people by a culture that has very specific notions about where the chain of responsibility begins.  Williams is supposed to feel bad about saying something that virtually every adult in America would have considered simple common sense, not so very long ago.

The Daily Beast writer claimed she “wholeheartedly disagreed with every word attributed to Williams,” before wandering off into the trackless wilderness of Trayvon Martin mythology.  Disagreeing with every one of Serena Williams’ words means you think 16-year-olds should be getting drunk whenever they feel like it, and their parents shouldn’t have anything to say about it.

It’s bizarre for Samuels to wander from Serena Williams and the Steubenville case into the George Zimmerman murder trial, but there is one important similarity: in both cases, a model that assigns absolute guilt and total responsibility to one party in a terrible story demands an absurd level of disregard for the behavior of the other.  Trayvon mythology is built around the religious conviction that he bears absolutely zero responsibility for anything he did on the night he died, right up to slamming George Zimmerman’s head against the pavement.  You’re not supposed to discuss all the opportunities Martin had for ending the whole encounter without confrontation or violence.  You’re not supposed to ask questions about his state of mind on that evening, or venture that attacking people because they followed you around for a little while is a bad idea.

In the Steubenville case, those who castigated Serena Williams are failing to distinguish between blame and responsibility.  They are related concepts, to be sure, but it’s possible to look at the chain of actions a person took, leading up to a tragic encounter, without shifting any of the blame onto their shoulders.  I invite the reader to peruse Ariel Levy’s piece at the New Yorker, following the link above, and ask whether everyone involved in the Steubenville incident doesn’t wish they had avoided drinking themselves into a haze that night.

What Serena Williams reportedly said is a long, long way from saying “it’s the girl’s fault because she got drunk.”  If our culture has become incapable of telling the difference, our children will not be well-served.  A strange and twisted cultural fairyland has been created for teenagers, in which they’re simultaneously considered full adults and uncontrollable wild animals.  It’s not hard to read the Steubenville story and find a large number of revolting moral deficiencies on the part of the teenage boys who ended up facing sexual assault charges.  But you’ll also see a broader culture of casual drinking and sexual hook-ups that doesn’t sound very healthy, either.

As with the “pro-choice” abortion culture, in which only the final link in a long chain of choices is said to matter at all, we are sternly instructed to skip the first chapters of a story and move along to the horrible ending.  But responsibility doesn’t work that way.  It starts on Page One.  There aren’t different versions of the book for boys and girls, or for people of different racial backgrounds.  And it’s not juvenile fiction.

 

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