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.”
“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.