Year: 2014 (Page 1 of 3)
Content note: this post contains and links to discussions of rape and sexual harassment.
Social attitudes towards rape and sexual violence and harassment have over the last few years been undergoing what Laurie Penny has aptly called ‘rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment’. From Steubenville, to Jimmy Saville, and academic philosophers, we have been confronted with both how widespread rape, sexual violence and harassment is, and how awfully this is dealt with by the police, courts and institutions. Closer to home for me, a few months ago the Oxford Union president was arrested for rape and attempted rape (the charges were later dropped). This resulted in a campaign to have him resign his position as president and for invited speakers to cancel their appearances until he did. The ‘public intellectual’ A.C. Grayling however refused to cancel his appearance, saying that the president was innocent until proven guilty and should not be tried in the ‘kangaroo court of public opinion’. This has become a common response to accusations of rape (with ‘kangaroo court‘ the favourite and somewhat tired description). The alleged rapist, it is argued, should not be subject to social sanctions and society should reserve judgement because of the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty.
I vehemently disagree with this. But when challenged I have in the past been somewhat unsure of my reasons for disagreeing. One argument is that though innocent until proven guilty is an extraordinarily important principle, it is primarily a legal principle. That means it applies to the courts and the legal process of convicting someone of a crime. If someone is to be subjected to state punishment (from fines, to jail, to being executed), then they have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty so that the obligation rests with the prosecution and not the accused to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. It is however not clear that public condemnation of an alleged rapist should be subject to the same principle. As has been pointed out the so-called ‘kangaroo court of public opinion’ is not actually a kangaroo court. A kangaroo court (such as white lynch mobs) disregards the standards of a fair trial to punish the accused. Public discussion and condemnation does not (usually) seek to actually replace the legal process and determine guilt and then exact the kind of punishment normally reserved for the state.
But I am unsure of this argument. First, it relies on a kind of reasoning where the legal and social is entirely divorced that I would normally reject. I do not for example accept the absurd argument that women, queer people and people of colour have achieved equal status on the basis that many (but certainly not all) legal discriminations have been removed, because this is undermined by the continued existence of social oppression upheld through patriarchal, white supremacist and heteronormative norms. Second, public condemnation and discussion is not the whole story. Social sanctions, which include being personally or professionally shunned and being removed or temporarily stepping down from public positions, are graver than public condemnation and can approach state punishment in the consequences for the accused. Trying to argue that carrying out these kind of social sanctions does not punish the accused in the way a court does, seems unconvincing. Justifying it requires more than saying that innocent until proven guilty is just a legal principle.
I think the more convincing defence of public condemnation and social sanctions, and thereby overruling innocent until proven guilty, is based on the flawed legal processes and social attitudes that surround rape and sexual harassment and violence. Rape culture and its associated myths infect every step of the legal process from the police to judges. Combined with the social shaming and condemnation of victims, this mean that rape remains (as the graphic above shows) a dramatically under-reported, under-prosecuted and under-sentenced crime. In the absence of a correctly functioning legal system and societal attitudes that support victims I think it is therefore justifiable to publicly condemn and socially sanction alleged rapists and harassers. Of course this will vary from case to case, based on which crime they are accused of and the actions taken by the institutions that are supposed to deal with it, and there is no easy formula for this. I think that these actions are however necessary to challenge the ideas embedded in rape culture and replace them with the kind of norms and institutions that would seriously reduce the prevalence of rape and harassment.
In closing it is worth reflecting why people place so much emphasis on innocent until proven guilty when it comes to rape and harassment. I suspect that this is in fact one more feature of rape culture. At its heart rests the profoundly mistaken view that false accusations of rape and harassment are rife. I think we should remember that insisting that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, is so often based on the assumption that the victim is ‘lying until proven truthful’. To counteract that, I think it is central to believe and support victims. As Stavvers has convincingly argued:
‘Silence is the biggest weapon patriarchy has in keeping rape culture alive, and “I believe her” starts to tear down this wall and encourage and empower survivors to speak out. Because of this, it is crucial that we resist the attacks on this notion, the slurring it as “mobs” and “kangaroo courts”, because it isn’t. It’s solidarity in the face of patriarchy, and we should be proud that it is starting to terrify those who would rather we shut up.’
I was not personally affected by the vote for Scottish independence, but like many political junkies, I was very much interested. Though it wasn’t merely intellectual curiosity that drove me to follow it: the vote was a unique and precedential event on the stage of global politics that may well have implications beyond the Kingdom-that-is-for-now-still-United. Among my British friends, there was a split between those were tentatively relieved and those were tentatively disappointed that Scotland did not, in fact, secede yet all of them had a hard time deciding. I believe this is partly because we don’t have good frameworks to think through issues of boundaries and succession, as the old political ideologies (like imperialism and nationalism) are losing their grip. Liberalism and democracy are typically perceived to have no say on questions of boundaries and membership, and that’s a big problem for anyone who believes in individual rights and democracy. With this kind of motivation in mind, I’d like to briefly present two arguments, neither conclusive, that were not featured prominently in the debate about Scottish independence – one for, one against.
What reasons do people give for and against Scottish independence? To put it very crudely, the Yes argument was mostly nationalistic and the No argument commonly economic (which means it was about material welfare). Thus, the Yes people said that Scots are a nation and therefore deserve to have political independence – it is their right to control their own collective affairs. The No people said that an independent Scotland will either do worse than it is doing now or terribly bad, with all sorts of catastrophic scenarios flying around. Of course, the Yes people have responded by saying that independence would not have such dire consequences and may even have some economic benefits but their argument was still, for the most part, about national self-determination.
That brings me to one argument in favor of Yes. It seems important to have a living example of a nation achieving independence via a vote. It’s an historical opportunity to witness a nation gain statehood by ballots, not bullets and poke a hole in the generalization that independence is gained with blood and tears or not at all. Some political leaders worried that other national minorities looked to the vote with thoughts of their own national aspirations. If the vote succeeded, the thought went, such aspirations would be strengthened and that would lead to instability. But it seems to me that the opposite is true: such a peaceful campaign is a remarkable example of the potential of discursive and non-violent means for achieving political goals, which might encourage minorities to pursue similar non-violent means in the quest for their political autonomy. That wouldn’t be the cause of any ensuing instability, but a much better way of addressing the already existing tensions, which is a euphemism for the fact that many national minorities suffer discrimination, mistreatment and oppression. If you value democracy, you want to see it succeed where much blood has been shed before: in the struggle for political independence.
This leads us to the problem with the Yes argument. That the conversation has been couched mostly in nationalistic terms is, I believe, a source of concern. For various reasons I can’t enumerate here I am very skeptical about the idea of nationalism in general and about nationalism as a basis for political independence in particular. One troubling aspect of nationalism is that the idea that nations should have their own states and states should be nation-states forces people to choose. Why can’t someone be both Scottish and British? If nations are to have their own state, each state should have a clear nation. If there’s a nation that doesn’t have a state – either it should have its own state, or live as a minority in a state that isn’t its own.
More importantly, I think that there is a potentially better argument for the Yes campaign that wasn’t as prominent in this discussion. That is the democratic aspect: would a new independent state improve the Scottish people’s ability to affect the matters the concern their own lives? Some Yes people have made that argument, usually within the nationalistic framework: as a nation, the Scots will be in a position to manage their own life. But I’m not interested in the Scots as a nation, but in Scots (and the English, and all other affected parties) as individuals. Would it improve individuals’ democratic standings? Will they have more say in decisions that impact their lives? I’m not sure, and I haven’t heard many people make a persuasive argument either way. Some Yes people think that an independent Scotland would result in an improvement in democracy because there are differences in preferences, generally speaking, between the population of Scotland and the rest of the UK: Scots tend to support more social policies, such as governmental funding of education and healthcare than the policies of the UK government. Therefore, an independent Scotland would reflect better the preferences of most Scots while the remaining citizens of the UK would have policies that reflect their preferences.
This might be true. However, there are various other issues that complicate the story. Will an independent government in Scotland be sufficiently strong to have its own policies in the face of pressures from international markets and a strong neighbor? For example, if the now independent Scotland attempts to regulate labour standards more rigorously will they be able to enforce it given the competition with their southern neighbors or will they have to end up complying with the standards of the Westminster government only that now it’ll be a much more conservative government in which they will have no say?
These are empirical questions that are hard to answer, but to my knowledge they have not been the focus of empirical study in recent years. Partly, that’s because the kind of democratic considerations I’m raising here have not been prevalent in discussion on boundaries and succession, though I think they should be.
|Magna Carta Memorial, by Karnaphuli / CC BY-NC 2.0|
- Constitutional rights can be applied to non-governmental organisations, as the laws of some countries show. For instance, German and Austrian law describes the model of a so-called “thirdparty effect of constitutional rights”. The effect comes into play when the people involved have possess “very unequal economic and social power”, e.g. in the relationship between employers and employees. Analogously one could argue that the power gap between companies such as google or facebook and their users is large enough to warrant the consideration that users can evoke their constitutional rights
- Since facebook has an enormous bearing on the public debate of political and social issues, it should be subject to media laws and political scrutiny. In analogy to the google case, rights to privacy, to inform themselves freely or not to be harassed need to be respected. Some of them are already part of facebook’s “community standards”, but facebook is the only that monitors their enforcement.
- Facebooks own standards formulate obligations to their users. Facebook promises to leave the rights to content in the user’s hand, whenever standards are not violated. If not, they promise to notify the user (s. point 4 below). It should be made sure that facebook adheres to its own standards.
- Transparency presents a prominent principle in procedural justice. People have a right to be informed about the matters that concern them, especially in public interaction and deliberation. If facebook is editing content silently, it clearly violates this right.
P.S. I admit to being a frequent facebook user to gather information and keep in contact with people I do not see on a regular basis. Interestingly, my post linking to an article about Gideon Levy and his reports from Gaza is still up, while it disappeared from other walls. Not sure what that means.