Far be it from me to detract from the awareness the term ‘rape culture’ provides, or from the justified outrage it expresses, but the scandalous proceedings following the sexual assault of an unconscious 23-year-old by former Stanford University student, Brock Turner, lend themselves to reflection in more ways than one.
Convicted of several felonies and facing a maximum of 14 years’ imprisonment, one might wonder, for example, how it is that in the interest of ensuring a fair and balanced trial, no one thought to point out the potential conflict of interest in having a judge who is himself a Stanford alumnus preside over the case. In the normal course of things, we might expect the shared alma mater to be of no relevance, yet in the event, Turner received a trifling six-month sentence (with the expectation that he will spend barely half of that behind bars), Judge Aaron Persky seeing fit to drastically reduce the sentence, on the basis of favourable character references and a lack of prior convictions. The message this sends, with odious clarity, is certainly that justice is not blind, and possibly that there is an ‘old boys’ mentality at work, one that counts among its privileges the belief that its members are above the law.
One might marvel, also, at the statement issued by Turner’s father,1 Dan Turner, in defence of his son. Far from being an expression of parental support coloured with due contrition and understanding, the three-page missive focuses on the son’s agreeable nature and subsequent miseries to the same extent that it trivialises the physical, emotional, and psychological damage done to the victim, effectively dehumanising her in the process. Choice phrases that have provoked the ire of social media include the news that Turner Junior has lost his appetite for ribeye steak and other formerly favourite foodstuffs, and that his guilty verdict is a steep price to pay for ‘20 minutes of action’ (a stunningly and obliviously misogynistic minimisation that has garnered its own hashtag, trending on Twitter at time of writing).
Here too, we are justified in wondering whether the culture and attitudes that normalise casual misogyny do not find their causes in our parents’ generation, and in that of our parents’ parents. Turner Senior’s preferred mode of punishment being, in lieu of incarceration, to allow his son to engage in college educational programmes lecturing on the dangers of alcohol, the unasked question is: why not educate your sons not to objectivise women? Or: why not impress upon them the consequences of their actions, at least in human terms? (We won’t ask why he wouldn’t evoke the legal consequences of his son’s actions, as he clearly believes – rightly, as it turns out – that the judicial system can be swayed by emotion, and by petitioning with non-judicial irrelevancies.)
Last but not least, we might ask ourselves whether ‘rape culture’ is not merely a description of an underlying and broader social disorder, one of the ‘gilded youth’, in which our young are lionised to the extent that they can do virtually no wrong, because to recognise those wrongs would be to run counter to the collective weight of the aspirations and ideals we project onto them. Cognitive dissonance is often encountered in discussions between atheists and theists, but in such cases is usually limited to one party’s inability to separate themselves from and gain insight into their deeply-held, irrational beliefs. Here, though, we see a chilling and all-too-secular example of the other dangers posed by cognitive dissonance, and of the lives that can be destroyed, as a result.
In closing, I’ll sign off with the victim’s impact statement (addressed directly to the accused),2 that in the words of prosecutor, Jeff Rosen, is ‘the most eloquent, powerful and compelling piece of victim advocacy that I’ve seen in my 20 years as a prosecutor’.3