Saturday, August 27, 2005

Explaining v. justifying rape

There's been some blogospheric discussion lately about the explaining vs. justifying distinction (Brad DeLong, Abiola Lapite, Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings), mostly with respect to whether explanations of terrorism that incorporate American foreign policy as a cause actually justify terrorism. But of course the distinction does not only apply to terrorism. One example that has just occurred to me is the blame-the-victim mentality about rape. A lot of people (usually men) react to rape - especially date rape - by saying things like, "That sucks, but she should have known better than to dress provocatively / drink so much / walk alone in a dark alley."

This attitude has been roundly and rightly criticized by feminists and other right-thinking people. It's part of a larger cultural framework that casts women as either virgins or sluts, that views women as sexual objects, that views sexual exploitation of women as the default state, that holds double standards for women and men ("boys will be boys"), and so on.

But then the blame-the-victim crowd comes out with the protest, "I'm just explaining the rapist's actions, not justifying them... responsibility isn't zero-sum, you can blame the criminal but also assign some responsibility to the victim... don't assume that I hate women, I just want to help prevent future rapes... etc." This usually sounds disingenuous (to me, anyway). I don't want to make a direct analogy to explaining/justifying terrorism, but it does seem like a useful exercise to apply the explain/justify distinction, which I am inclined to accept in the case of terrorism, to a case where I am inclined not to accept it.

It seems clear to me that one can "explain" a rape in a sensitive and non-misogynistic (and non-justifying) way - this kind of explanation motivates authorities to encourage women to watch their drinks in parties, learn self-defense, and not walk alone at night. But then there are "explanations" that do shade into justification, or at least excuse-making: "how else do you expect a hot-blooded young male to react," "she should have seen it coming," etc. (Then there are outright justifications like "Look how she dressed - she was asking for it.") This is similar to the comment Jeff Weintraub made to Brad DeLong: just because some (or most) explanations do not justify doesn't meant there aren't other explanations that do justify (or excuse, whitewash, trivialize, defend, etc.).

This example doesn't prove anything about the application of the explain/justify distinction to terrorism (e.g., "Bush should have expected post-war chaos in Iraq" is not equivalent to "that woman should have expected her date to rape her after she dressed provocatively" -- for one thing, the latter is untrue statistically even if for no other reason). But it does show that, conceptually, one can see that the explain/justify distinction is not always clear-cut, but can be blurred, so let's not be too absolutist about insisting that "to explain is not to justify."

7 Comments:

Blogger Abiola said...

"This example doesn't prove anything about the application of the explain/justify distinction to terrorism (e.g., "Bush should have expected post-war chaos in Iraq" is not equivalent to "that woman should have expected her date to rape her after she dressed provocatively" -- for one thing, the latter is untrue statistically even if for no other reason)."

1 - There are people who offer criticisms of the Iraqi war of the sort you give here as an example, but it isn't at them that fingers are being pointed by sensible people (nuts like David Horowitz are another matter). With critics like this one at least senses that both parties are on the same side, whatever else they might disagree about: for instance, I detest Paul Krugman's crude pieces for the NYT, but I've never gotten a feeling from them that he's actively wishing for American troops to die and Iraq to devolve into civil war just so the Democrats can win an election. Unfortunately, this strain of thinking is by no means the only one on the left, as a casual Google search for "Iraqi resistance fighters" and "Indymedia" or "Democratic Underground" will confirm, or a look through the archives at Harry's Place or Normblog. Many of the things Michael Moore has said are frankly nauseating and borderline treasonous, what with his talk of murderous religious fanatics as "Minutemen" and "freedom fighters", and he's more popular and more accepted by the Democratic Party elite than ever, which ought to give one at least as much pause as the continued welcome extended by the GOP to the likes of Pat Robertson.

2 - Even if it were statistically highly likely that a woman could expect to be raped after dressing "provocatively" (a relative term, as to some men the mere existence of a woman in their vicinity is "provocative", whatever she's wearing), I still wouldn't be in the least inclined to accept that this "explanation" was anything other than a weasel-like attempt at exculpation: the victim may not have shown as much prudence as one might have liked, but the onus must still remain on the perpetrator for not exercising his free will and showing restraint. In the same way, whatever the policy mistakes of the Bush administration in Iraq - and of these there are many - the onus for the violence currently going on there must remain primarily on the Sunni insurgents themselves, and even a less-than competent Bush reconstruction team would have done a far better job than it did if these brutes weren't so busy tearing things down as they were being built, and that with the passive or active support of many of the same people in Iraq whining about the inconveniences imposed by the "occupation" (which is no longer legally anything of the sort, and the use of which term is a good indicator of the mindset of a critic).

8/27/2005 12:16:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

1 - I just did the Google search, and the first few hits are articles with titles like "Why we must support the Iraqi resistance" where it's quite obvious who they're supporting and there's no need to argue about whether explanations justify. It seems to me that the controversy at issue with the explain/justify distinction centers not on the active supporters of the resistance but on cases where left-leaning people think the explanation being offered is a good-faith explanation but right-leaning people think it's a excuse-making justification... But perhaps as you suggested, you and I would not necessarily disagree on those individual cases so much.

2 - I notice you do say "primarily" - do you concede that the Bush administration bears some responsibility? Hilzoy made a good point, I think, in saying that responsibility isn't zero-sum; blaming Bush for poor planning doesn't reduce any of the blame we put on the insurgents themselves.

8/27/2005 02:35:00 PM  
Blogger driftwood said...

Since there are some men who seem to think that what a women is wearing is justification for whatever they want to do, and since we would like to reduce rape, shouldn't we want to explore how these men come to this view? Then maybe we would learn something about how to better raise our children.

I remember a few years ago there was a flap over a teacher who tried to show her students what the Nazi's internal justification was. There was an uproar, but I could never tell if she showed any Nazi sympathies herself. People seemed angry with the very idea that the Nazi's had a justification instead of just acting out of some vague "pure evil". But of course they had a justification, and it was a bad one. To understand what was bad about it, you first have to understand what it was, no?

Like in so many cases, we have to look carefully at what someone says to see if they are buying into the justification that they claim they are merely explaining.

8/28/2005 12:22:00 AM  
Blogger Abiola said...

" do you concede that the Bush administration bears some responsibility?"

That's why I say "the policy mistakes of the Bush administration in Iraq - and of these there are many"; it is entirely proper for the administration to be held accountable for mistakes it has made which could have been avoided with some forethought. What I can't swallow is the claims made by certain types of "explainers" that Bush is the cause of terrorism, as if the invasion preceded 9/11 or kidnappers and suicide bombers were automatons who couldn't help but act as they do, those who "explain" terror attacks dating back all the way to the 1990s as "blowback" for "neocon" aggression (as if Bill Clinton were a "neocon", or the anti-Soviet effort in Afghanistan was a heinous crime), those who blame American support for Israel for a desire for the re-establishment of a Caliphate which dates all the way back to 1920, or those who talk as if Bin Laden were perfectly within his right to determine US-Saudi relations all by himself, and the mere presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia was indeed a terrible insult urgently in need of addressing.

None of the aforementioned types of people are criticizing failures which could and ought to have been avoided with better planning, they're attacking something more fundamental - America's very legitimacy as an international power, and the moral standing of ordinary Americans to feel aggrieved at Islamic terrorism. As far as such people are concerned, America basically "had it coming", and even though most of them are too sensible to come out and say this, it oozes from every word that emerges from their mouths. Read this article urging the necessity of an American defeat, or read this guy talking about how "Iraqi freedom fighters" were within their rights to shoot down a red-cross helicopter, and tell me that either example constitutes constructive criticism in your book. Note for the record that all it took to find both was to search for "neocons" + "freedom fighters", so it isn't as if I'm cherry-picking here.

Quite a few self-claimed "liberals" and "progressives" are openly or not so openly rooting for an American defeat in Iraq and more terror attacks at home, no doubt about it, and they're doing so under the guise of "explaining" supposedly reasonable grievances. To pretend that such people are either nonexistent or too few to be worth noticing is to deny reality.

8/28/2005 12:25:00 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

I think that when you come right out and write an article titled "Why America Needs to be Defeated in Iraq," you're no longer operating under the guise of "explaining" supposedly reasonable grievances, but very obviously and openly justifying the insurgency. For example, neither of those two articles claims to be "explaining, not justifying" the insurgency/terrorism; the first link talks about "justification for the use of violence" (i.e., the insurgents have it). These kinds of people don't seem to me to be relevant to the distinction between explanation/justification, as they don't shrink from saying they are justifying the insurgency.

we have to look carefully at what someone says to see if they are buying into the justification that they claim they are merely explaining.

Well, I can't argue with that. As long as the careful look turns out the right answer (and not nutty accusations of the sort that, as Abiola pointed out, David Horowitz and others have made).

8/29/2005 12:36:00 AM  
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