I'm as shocked as you are that I'm still talking about this-- indeed I hear the soft patter of earth hitting ground behind me at the moment, as I dig myself in yet deeper-- but the reporting on this Josh Duggar story seems to be getting worse rather than better – or at least, I keep hearing over again the same journalistic prevarication that I heard at the outset, but now from media sources I respect, which is much more distressing. So I'm wading in this one last time to repeat what I said at the beginning.
You will recall that the original headline, which said only that one of the Duggar children had a run-in with the law over accusations of “child molestation,” appeared in a supermarket tabloid. Would that it had stayed there. Instead, it ascended upward through increasingly reputable sources until today I heard the same headline on NPR’s Morning Edition, which I usually regard as a sanctuary from this type of journalism. In all the iterations of the story I’ve seen so far, the reporters tell the same literal truth, but they always leave out or breathlessly hurry over the one critical detail that casts an entirely different light on everything—the fact that Josh Duggar, the "perpetrator," was a 14-year-old boy at the time. (In fairness to the NPR reporters, they do state that Duggar was a “minor,” but the TV critic they ask to provide commentary places no emphasis on this point and offers no sympathy on its basis.)
The critic notes that some usual bogeys—Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, e.g. – have dubbed the recent treatment of Duggar a “media feeding frenzy,” and while I am loath to agree with such characters on anything, I don’t know what else to call it when a reputable outlet like NPR uses the words “child molestation” to refer to the actions of a child. This is not fair reporting. It is yellow journalism that began at In Touch magazine and has retained the accent of its origins ever since.
What I can’t figure out is what all the voices of outrage think actually ought to have happened, or what they would like to see happen now. Should teenage Josh Duggar have been packed off to juvenile detention? Should he have been tried as an adult? What is supposed to be done to him now that hasn’t been done already – he has lost his job and his reputation in the last few weeks, I notice. At one point in their dialogue, one of the NPR reporters asks the other the following pseudo-profundity: “Is this the return of the Culture Wars?” I wasn’t aware they'd ever ended or gone on hiatus, but if so, these will be new and strange culture wars indeed if the Left rides in on the side of treating juvenile offenders as adult criminals, while the Right pleads for tolerance.
Look: I too have a great deal of distaste for those Duggar parents-- in part because of their gender politics and their simpering evangelism, but more importantly because they have willfully exploited their own family by turning them into a reality TV circus act. They made a knowing trade-off in doing so between the privacy and dignity of their children and their own desire for short-lived fame, and we now see what invariably comes of such bargains.
I have a much harder time faulting them, though, for evidently hesitating over how to deal with Josh Duggar's actions when he was fourteen – indeed, it’s one of the few things they’ve done that I can sympathize with. I wonder how many people would really have behaved so differently, had something like this happened in their home -- how many of the people following this story in a spirit of outrage would really rush to turn over their own child to a punitive bureaucracy rather than try to discipline him themselves first. We can at least agree, surely, that it would be a traumatizing decision to have to make.
Just as it’s not even clear what the media think should happen to Duggar as suitable punishment, meanwhile, it’s not obvious what he or his family could say that would not be used as still more evidence against them. Abject contrition from Duggar seems to have gotten him nothing, as apologies so often tend only to inflame these scandals. An expression of regret gets interpreted in these situations as mere regret at being caught.
Moreover, an apology to one’s persecutors, if sincere, often indicates to them that they are morally in the right. Since the people who participate in persecutions are usually doing so for conformist reasons, meanwhile, they will be pleased by this additional confirmation of the collective opinion, and will seek out yet more apologies, each more abasing than the last. If someone told them they were wrong, by contrast, they might well be thrown by it, as conformists are always led into self-doubt by those who don't conform. Perhaps this is why Bill Clinton’s apologies were so effective. He always delivered them only after ever other possible strategy of self-protection had been exhausted, and in their text he made sure to blame all the rest of the world as much as he did himself. Listening to them, you might with some imagination be persuaded he knew he was in the wrong, but you would never for an instant think he believed that Ken Starr, Newt Gingrich, and the Paula Jones attorneys were in the right.
Nor will the efforts of two of the victims -- Josh Duggar's sisters -- to defend him and clarify what actually happened 12 years ago, be allowed to do him any good. The sisters apparently went on Fox News with this goal in mind, and one can probably guess what they said and how it will be added to the case for the prosecution. According to the NPR story, the sisters emphasized on Fox that the incident involved groping while they and the other victims were asleep and fully clothed. People will hear this statement as if the two were suggesting that the groping somehow “didn’t count” in such circumstances. The NPR TV critic sets this line of thought in motion by chipping in, “As if that mattered,” to his description of the sisters’ argument. But of course, the exact nature of Josh Duggar's actions does matter a great deal in determining guilt, and it is worth trying to put a brake on the number of crimes people start imagining when they hear the words “child molestation.” Groping and rape may both be terrible things, but they are not the same thing. I suspect this is all the sisters were trying to say, but the translation of their words into an effort to "minimize" the offense, as the TV critic puts it, seems almost inevitable.
I have great sympathy for the Duggars’ evident plight at the moment, as they seem to dig themselves deeper into trouble with everything they say, as I feel rather as if I have dug myself in alongside them over recent posts. This is the third time now I have returned to this subject on this blog to reiterate much the same thing about the case, and I have had to give thought to the same problems they have -- the nature of apology, and how to ask for tolerance for someone who did something wrong without minimizing the gravity of the offense. This may be a sign of little more than the fact that I just finished a year of school and now have way too much time on my hands, and if you wish, you may read this sad back-and-forth as little more than an extended plea to the gods to have that summer job offer come through and save me from this burden of freedom.
It is also a manifestation, however, of a certain bug I’ve noticed in my mental software. It is a glitch and/or itch that ensures that the worse the timing, the more awkward the subject, the more an opinion is likely to get me in trouble, the more I am compelled to express it in this medium. Poe called this bug the “Imp of the Perverse," and one example he gave of its operation in his case was a need that sometimes possessed him when he was in the middle of a particularly longwinded speech, and had begun to notice looks of boredom and irritation on the faces of his listeners, to go on talking at even greater length. Alasdair Gray speaks of the Imp as a subconscious entity that makes him lose or misplace important objects at exactly the moment of their greatest need. I experience it as a slightly more morally discriminating force that this, but an equally inconvenient one. The main place I notice it in my life is on this blog, though occasionally it has manifested itself in meetings or at school, and it always appears in the following circumstance: whenever something I believe has started to catch particularly nettlesomely against what everyone else, or what someone in authority, seems to believe. In such a context, the very resistance the Imp encounters makes it more insistent, rather than less, that I let it have its say.
Poe thought this Imp a glitch in nature, lacking any biological justification since it surely couldn’t be understood to contribute to self-preservation. And surely to the extent that the Imp is simply a type of contrariness or sadism, that seems to be true. I would want to hold out a slightly higher function for it, though. Gray again, in his Of Me & Others, writes of meerkats who make themselves visible to predators so as to provide warning to the rest of the group, and of birds who tweet especially loudly when they see a hawk so as to alert others, even though they imperil themselves by so doing. For Gray, whatever biological functions these actions serve must be similar to the function of “tell[ing] unwelcome truths” in human societies. I associate this function within me as that of the Imp, which reminds me of things I find unwelcome that nonetheless pose serious moral perils that I will at some point need to confront. It is a kind of kamikaze brigade within an otherwise more prudent inner army of conscience.
I believe my Imp has sensed a hawk circling in this Duggar story, and it is one that the other birds, as they twitter away (and Twitter away) on NPR, the Huff Po, and social media, have not yet cared to observe. The moral peril here could be described in many ways -- as I have tried perhaps exhaustingly to do over several recent posts -- but let's end on one of them I haven't discussed so far at such length, which is the question of ethical consistency. I want to ask: is the Left responding to Josh Duggar the way it is because of what he did – or simply because he is an evangelical and social conservative icon?
Fox News and the rest face a much greater charge of hypocrisy, of course, for the way they are responding to this story, and I don't mean to let them off easy. This story slots of course into some familiar right-wing narratives about invasive bureaucracies sticking their noses into private family dramas, so it makes some sense that they have taken the Duggars' side, but one notes that these same right-wing outlets show far less alarm when those private dramas concern, say, a Muslim American family devastated by an 11-year-long government prosecution over bogus terrorism charges, or when an inner city family in Baltimore loses a teenage son to prison for (potentially) five years because he broke a police car windshield and then turned himself in for it. Suddenly the criticism of invasive bureaucracies dries up.
But I expect more from the Left than I do from Fox News, to state the woefully obvious, yet I fear that it too is behaving with terrible inconsistency here. If it weren’t for the cultural politics of the Duggars, I think it’s obvious where the Left would come down on this issue. Surely the Left would ordinarily be opposed to treating juveniles as criminals. If I say to leftists in most contexts that a 14-year-old kid is not capable of committing a “crime,” let alone the crime of "child molestation," in the proper senses of the words, I would usually get nods of assent. I suspect the only reason I might not on this occasion is due to a double standard for Duggars.
I have in mind also a broader point, though, which concerns matters far beyond this one case. To arrive at it, I have to make a few generalizations that I hope will not be thought unfair.
There once was a time when I would have confidently asserted the following, about the difference between Left and Right:
The Right, I would have said, tends to believe in rules, and in holding people to account for them. In matters of criminal justice and in economic policy, it believes that people are responsible for their actions and the consequences of those actions, and holds that justice is a matter of setting fair rules and seeing to it that people, most of the time, reap as they sew in accordance with them.
Like most worldviews, I would have said, this right-wing one is not entirely wrong, and it appeals to some legitimate values. It will invariably have more appeal, however, to people who do rather well under the presently reigning system of rules, or those who, for one reason or another, have found the rules rather easy to follow.
The Left, of course, doesn’t have to deny the legitimacy of all rules, but in its best moments it has tended to cast some doubt on the ones we presently have. It asks questions about whether these are really the best ones we could have, whether they are not rather stacked against certain groups and individuals, and whether the penalties attached to not following them are not rather too steep and unforgiving. The liberal or leftist used to be someone who instinctively recoiled from the thought of “making" anyone "pay” for anything, and who was haunted by doubts as to the fairness of all individual punishments. If that is an attitude liable to some characteristic corruptions, and it surely is, I still greatly prefer it to its opposite.
In the Duggar case, it’s clear enough what the rules were, and what the Duggar parents were supposed to have done in accordance with them: they were supposed to have turned over their 14-year-old son to the police. For some people, that’s evidently all they need to know. It is a strange situation, though, that those people at the moment seem mostly to be on the Left.
I would think a more consistent Left might ask if the rules were really fair ones, whether they did not in fact place the people involved into an emotionally impossible bind. It might remember that laws are human institutions, not divine commandments, and are subject to revision.
Instead, people are choosing to turn the whole gargantuan weight of social condemnation against the actions of a disturbed 14-year-old. That will be an easy, if not a particularly fair, fight for them to win. Indeed, they have won it, and I don't even know what more they think they want.