Friday, November 11, 2011

It's the Only Thing

The child-rape scandal at Penn State continues to unfold, and I confess to some relief that for once, words that are often thrown around too freely, like "pedophile" or "rape" itself, are actually the right tools for the job. "Pedophile" has been been inflated to the point where it is used any time there's a notable age-difference between partners, even if the younger partner is thirty; but this time the victims are in fact prepubescent children, and they were forced, so "rape" is the correct word once again. Not that it matters, since a ten-year-old of either sex is not allowed to give consent to sexual penetration by a sixty-year-old male in any state of the Union; the overturning of sodomy laws in 2003 has no effect on that. It would be interesting to know how Jerry Sandusky worked around little details like this in what passed for his mind. He can hardly have been unaware of the law, or the moral issues; or even, "This is a lot of fun, but what if someone walked in and caught me?" Someone did, after all, but all that happened to Sandusky was that he lost his keys to the shower room and had to take the boys home to diddle them.

The Penn State coverup echoes the Roman Catholic Church's coverup of sexual abuse by clergy. Despite the high moral values claimed by religion and elite sports, neither institution could work up much concern over the sexual use of children and youth by adults who had official charge over them. Given the official hysteria about pedophilia in anti-gay campaigns, it's fascinating that, confronted with cases of actual pedophilia, coaching and religious hierarchies don't in practice consider it a big deal. (This might be a useful point to bring up when antigay bigots start frothing about pedophilia: why are they so worked up about a possibility that isn't even theoretically on the table -- If we pass a gay-rights law, day-care centers will have to hire known child molesters! -- but not very excited about institutions in their midst that have employed and protected known child molesters? Indeed, they continue to revere them, and defend them vehemently. More attention should be focused on this, and less on indignant screaming about whether homosexuality is a choice.)

It's a reminder that the word "rape" has only recently been dragged, kicking and screaming, to a new and specific meaning of the imposition of sexual acts (a messy category itself) by force on an unwilling partner. In practice and in theory, "rape" has included consensual acts where the "victim" was not allowed by law or custom to give consent: a white woman to a black or lower class male, a physically mature individual to an even slightly older one -- and in practice and social attitudes, the victim has often been blamed even more than the perpetrator: once penetrated, a woman is polluted, so she must have or get a husband, which justifies and covers the pollution, or she'll be branded a whore. ("Sodomy" is another tricky term: it often carries connotation of force, because no male of any age is permitted to consent to being abased in this way, so any "sodomy" is forced by definition.) "Rape," like many other sexual offenses, really means that a nominally clean person has been polluted, and her or his consent is irrelevant, which is probably why there's so much confusion about the issue.

Another confused area, of course, is mob violence, which is what got me started on this post. Penn State students rioted the other night in support of Coach Joe Paterno, who for the better part of a decade covered up the sexual abuse of children in his facilities even after it was reported to him. (A smaller group of students also gathered around Paterno's house to support him, crying "We love you, Joe!") This even jolted Jon Stewart; but maybe football is just inherently less important than basketball. FoxSports reported:
At around 12:20am local time Thursday, the university issued an official police dispersal order via Facebook, warning students to vacate downtown State College immediately. It came after several violent scenes in which protesters flipped over a media van and destroyed other property.
Well, there you go! I now see how valuable social media like Facebook really are.
About 2,000 people gathered at Old Main and moved to an area called Beaver Canyon, a street ringed by student apartments that were used in past riots to pelt police, reported.

But while several arrests were made, the disorder was controlled amid a strong presence from state police as the crowds returned to Old Main.
(Bold type is mine.)

To add to the entertainment, the Phelps clan, aka Westboro Baptist Church, is planning to picket Penn State, to the indignation of some groups there. "[T]he radical group has caused the Penn State Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Ally Student Alliance to team up with the Penn State Atheist/Agnostic Association in a counter-protest."
Alyssia Motah, co-president of the LGBTQA Student Alliance, says that WBC's presence will be a chance to be heard.
"The fact that they're going to be here is an opportunity for us to react and we intend to do that," Motah said.
Maybe they should chip in for WBC's travel expenses, for giving them an "opportunity to react."

Compare this to the unprovoked police attacks on nonviolent protesters in New York, Boston, Oakland and elsewhere. If the Penn State rioters had been upset about something not related to college sports, I think we'd have seen pepper spray, tear gas, tazers, clubs, shields, and water cannons, and there'd have been a lot more than "several" arrests. None of these police sex toys have been mentioned in any report of the Penn State riots I've seen, and according to the FoxSports story, Penn State students have a history of 'pelting' police in past riots.

Amartya Sen wrote in The Argumentative Indian (Penguin/Allen Lane, 2005), page 237, emphasis mine:
This inequality [of physical violence] has been traced by some commentators to the physical asymmetry of women and men, with men having greater immediate power in the gross bodily sense. Undoubtedly, this asymmetry does have a substantial role in the prevalence and survival of this terrible state of affairs, made worse by periods of particular vulnerability for women, such as pregnancy and early post-natal phases. But in addition to the physical aspects of this inequality, attitudinal factors cannot but be major influences. The possibility of physical violence can actually be used (to settle a dispute or gain an advantage) only when the permissibility of such behaviour is accepted, explicitly or by implication.
I think this goes a long way toward explaining the differing police responses to the Occupy movement and to the Penn State rioters. It's considered natural, if slightly tacky, for sports fans to riot after a loss, or a victory, or the dismissal of a popular coach; so the police treat them gently, even in the face of much greater and more overt provocation. Even political disruptions are okay, as long as they come from the Right. Remember the "unruly" Tea Party mobs, organized from above by right-wing organizations and media, at town hall meetings with Congresspeople in 2009? (The linked story mentions no arrests, let alone broken heads, resulting from the police intervention.) The Right's response to criticism was that the Left had done the same in our day -- which was true enough, but the Left got much harsher treatment for it, and continues to do so. As Sen suggests, that's not accidental. It won't be easy to change, either, but we should all be aware of the attitudes involved.