Saturday, June 6, 2015

An Apology

Some disorganized online reading last night led me, through a process I don’t remember, to a short essay by Scottish poet Tom Leonard, which he wrote in response to the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. In it, he describes in plain language his experience of being raped as a child. The man who did this to him was not a priest or anyone associated with the church, but when Leonard took the matter to his confessor, he recalls that he was told to perform a “penance” for it. He was, in short, doubly violated – first by sexual violence, and then by a burden of guilt that he – the victim – was made to bear for it. It was a burden he took into adulthood, writing that he "would later search in myself for ways in which I must have been to blame for what had happened, for I was left feeling somehow to blame.”

Leonard’s sense of guilt is one spoken of often by victims of sexual violence, though it is not always so blatantly imposed by figures with authority. I knew this, or at least had been told it, but sometimes I need reminding of what I know. Leonard’s brief account served as that reminder. It completely overthrew me. I felt nauseous. Here is the reason why:

I realized all at once, on reading this article, that I had seriously messed up in a post I wrote recently on this blog that dealt with sexual violence; that I had written the post in a way that, had it not been for the obscurity of this medium, might have been very hurtful to a lot of people. I don’t think I was mistaken in what I said, in the position I took, or in the points I raised, but I was dramatically mistaken in what I failed to say. I was wrong because I left out the thing that Tom Leonard says, in his few words; the thing I lack the insight and personal experience to say as well as he did -- the truth of the enormity of sexual violence, of the irrevocable damage is does to people’s lives. In failing to emphasize this, I risked not only missing the full truth, I risked adding -- without intending it -- to the burden of guilt that victims like Leonard are made to feel.

I especially regret now the earlier post’s sarcastic tone. Of course, the sarcasm was intended for people whom I do in fact think behaved and are behaving contemptibly. It was meant to skewer the media, who were trying to ruin an adult man for a something he did as a child. It was directed at articles like this one, from The Guardian, which appear to think that anyone accused of a sex crime should be presumed guilty before proven innocent, in violation of all the hard-fought protections for defendants wrested out of long centuries of lynchings and persecutions, and which appear also to think it is fair to define a person for all time by something he did as a 14-year-old. It was gallows humor meant for hanging judges, such as this Guardian writer.

I am not writing now to apologize to that writer or to similar writers. I expect they would not accept an apology anyways, as they do not appear to believe in second chances. More importantly, I continue to mean everything I said of them.

But I fear that my sarcasm may have obscured the second half of what I believe, even as it expressed the first. It may have given the impression that I did not take sexual violence and the victims of sexual violence seriously, that I did not think these grave matters. When faced with this possibility, my first thought is: “But of course I don’t think that!” Tom Leonard’s piece, however, reminded me that this is not enough.

In writing that first post, I had wanted to stand up for the humanity of a group of people who are very often denied it by our media and justice system – people, that is, who have been convicted of sex crimes, and who have therefore been placed at the “terminal point of compassion in our punishment-happy society,” as I put it there. I wanted to insist that such a person should be regarded with especial compassion if he was a child or teenager himself at the time of the crime -- that is, to reiterate what should be an obvious point: a child cannot be deemed a “child molester." I had forgotten to emphasize, though, the reason for the termination of compassion I am arguing against: the legitimate moral horror that people feel at sexual violence.

Such moral outrage often has dreadful consequences. It makes innocent people seem guilty just because they are accused of a sex crime. It has led our states to institute “sexual offender” registries that deny the possibility of rehabilitation to the convicted, and that sweep all kinds of crimes into their nets that are far less heinous than what most people mean when they hear the term "sex crime." And finally, it leads people to regard those convicted of sexual offenses as less than human. This is the power that moral outrage wields. I had briefly lost sight of the fact in my previous post, however, that it possesses this power precisely because it is partly based in a great truth: that sexual violence is an incalculable evil.


An evil action does not make for an evil person, though, and I believe people should not be reduced to the worst things they have done.* I think perhaps I feel so strongly about this precisely because of situations like the one I find myself in today. My own past words so often strike me as those of a fool, ignoramus, or jerk, that I have a sympathetic horror at the thought of anyone else being defined solely by their past, and being denied the capacity to change. I do not like so often to feel I am in the wrong, but it seems to me my chronic foot-in-mouth disease is at least worth something, if it can help me to be more compassionate toward people who make much greater mistakes in their lives than poorly-worded blog posts.

The difficult part, though, is to remember alongside this truth that the mistakes are mistakes, that the terrible actions are terrible, that the crimes are moral travesties, even as one stands up for the humanity of the people who do them.

To strike this balance properly requires an ethical maturity that I do not always attain, though I take a sour comfort from the fact that a lot of older and more accomplished people fall short of it as well. Gore Vidal back in the ‘90s, for one, took an early and noble stand against the blood vengeance that the American government perpetrated against Timothy McVeigh for his role in the Oklahoma City Bombings. Vidal’s brave opposition to McVeigh’s execution, however, shaded at times into a lack of affect for McVeigh’s victims, and even an ominous hint of sympathy for his actions. (Recall, meanwhile, that the bombings killed 168 people and injured nearly 700.) Many on the radical left have no real principled objection to violence and the deliberate taking of life, especially when it is done in some so-called “revolutionary” context. They may even find the notion of political violence thrilling. Yet they tend to object to the American criminal justice system, so their objection to the brutal punishment of people convicted of terrorism becomes entangled with a subtle defense of the original crime. They have difficulty escaping the immature confusion between standing up for a person as a human being and trying to minimize the irrevocable evil of what that person did.

More mature and conscientious people who oppose our current regime of punishment may fall into a different error: they may come to think that sympathy for victims just “goes without saying”; or else that the vast majority already sympathize with victims, and next to none with perpetrators, so it is clear where the greater need lies.

But Tom Leonard’s account reminds us of why these views are mistaken, and harmful. Victims, particularly victims of sexual violence, are often made to blame themselves, and well-intentioned advocates for criminal justice reform, if they insist on the humanity of perpetrators without also reiterating the categorical innocence of victims, can sound as if they were confirming that blame. Reformers are often prone to use words that sound innocuous at first but prove in fact to be dangerous, and one of the worst of these is “forgiveness.” The careless deployment of this word and the act it signifies can seem to suggest that victims should somehow feel guilty for the rage they feel, or that they are wrong to turn perpetrators over to the police. For victims to begin to escape the harm that sexual violence inflicts, they need to know that this is not true—that they are not and never were at fault. Tom Leonard in the article above shares with us a statement he wrote as an adult, addressed to his rapist, that served for him as a way of finally escaping from this burden. I quoted part of it above. In full it reads:
"You gave me the responsibility, and so the guilt, of protecting you always from the justice you deserved. I was therefore made to feel an accomplice in the act that you had perpetrated on me, and would later search in myself for ways in which I must have been to blame for what had happened, for I was left feeling somehow to blame. But I had been innocent in everything to do with that act, absolutely innocent and blameless."
In my insistence on my own truths, I failed to acknowledge Tom Leonard’s truth, and the truth of all victims. I failed because – and I mean this as an explanation, not an excuse – I was writing a blog post, which is essentially an exercise in formulating an “opinion.” And an “opinion,” in turn, is one part of the truth, arrived at through a mutilation, often willful, of the rest of it.


In my darker moments, it sometimes seems to me that it is impossible to make up one’s mind about any moral problem without a deliberate deadening of particular sympathies. Quite often, the people one meets or reads who have all their "opinions" firmly established seem people who are emotionally only half-alive. They have trained themselves to feel only in certain ways, and only toward certain people. They have disciplined themselves not to be persuaded by other sympathies that once might have moved them.

This is the great failing of journalists and politicians. Literary writing is better able to avoid it, because its characters know they only speak for one sympathy at a time, and know they are not intended to represent every sympathy of which the author is capable (whereas journalists and pundits, if they are successful, at some point simply become characters). In Joseph Mitchell’s short book Joe Gould’s Secret, the narrator (ostensibly Mitchell himself) says in one place: “I believe in revenge,” in reference to the "settling of old scores." Elsewhere he writes, “I have always deeply disliked seeing anyone shown up or found out or caught in a lie or caught red-handed doing anything.” These two statements come close to contradicting one another, and thus could never pass as an "opinion." And yet, we know instinctively that they both reflect the truth. Mitchell could achieve this because he was writing literature as much as journalism (indeed, he is somewhat notorious now for defying the usual distinctions between the two). He was not trying to reduce life to a "position."


It seems to me that if we decide to talk about truth, rather than opinion, meaning that we do not deliberately set out to deaden one side of our sympathies, there are at least two sympathies we have to keep always with us in writing about sexual violence, or about any violent crime:

The first is the truth Tom Leonard reveals about sexual violence. I won’t try again to paraphrase it. Whatever I say will be a paltry understatement of the enormity involved, of the gravity of the harm wrought by that act of violence.

The second truth, which can only rightly be emphasized alongside the first, is that even the person who attacked Tom Leonard that day as a child is in fact a person. We do not know what led him to do something so irrevocably harmful to a child. We do not know if he was the victim of abuse or violence himself in the past. We do not know if he was mentally ill. We do not know how he understood, or whether he understood, the terrible thing he was doing. We do not know what delusion made him think that day that he was right to do it. He deserves some benefit of our ignorance. He, even he, deserves compassion.

I fight with myself a great deal about how to do justice to both these truths. Indeed, this blog is a sort of real-time chronicle of my missteps, overcorrections, and overcorrections of overcorrections as I attempt to do it. My recent post failed more dramatically than most in this regard, however, so I am writing here to say that I am sorry.


* Bill Clinton, with himself in mind, says something similar in a 2004 interview, but perhaps immediately after reflected that the criminal justice policies he helped to institute as president reduced lots of other people in exactly this way, so we quickly adds: “unless it was a mass-murder, or some other crime.” I would want to take out that “unless,” while also noting that the category of “some other crime” includes a lot of things which stand at some considerable moral distance from “mass-murder.” Someone who has said this with somewhat greater sincerity is Bryan Stevenson.

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