Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Misplaced Empathy

An article in the New York Times appeared on Sunday about how the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) is advocating for gun owners’ rights in states that are seeking to put into place laws which would demand perpetrators to relinquish firearms when they have a domestic violence protection order placed against them. This article bears a similar theme to the recent Steubenville, Ohio high school rape case that continues to be the latest in “controversial” rape cases brought to national attention, following big name cases like the Jerry Sandusky trial in 2012. The New York Times article and the Steubenville case both are examples of misplaced empathy.

For those who have not been following the news on the trial, the Steubenville, Ohio rape trial involves two high school students, both star members of the football team, who digitally penetrated a sixteen year-old girl after a party in August of 2012. The victim was intoxicated. A confusing web of text messages, videos, and pictures followed the rape, essentially broadening the incriminated parties and re-victimizing the sixteen year-old girl. It remains to be seen who else, aside from the two football players, will be prosecuted in the case (last I read this morning sixteen more people are facing charges).[1] The two football players, however, were found guilty, and they are facing time in a juvenile detention facility in addition to becoming registered juvenile sex offenders.[2]

The controversy I mentioned in the introductory paragraph comes from our society’s perception of rape. First is the controversy surrounding the rape itself. Many are refusing to believe that this girl was “actually” raped, since if she did not want the activity, she would have done more to prevent it (even worse are those who claim that since she was intoxicated, clearly she was “looking” or “asking” for it). That is called victim blaming, and is a big big big big big big BIG problem in our society.

Victim blaming, essentially, is misplacing the blame for rape or violence on the victim instead of the perpetrator. It happens all the time. Like literally, ALL THE TIME. How often do you hear it said that the victim was asking for it, or should not have been wearing what (s)he was wearing. How about saying instead, why did the perpetrator rape someone? One might further hear it said “well, I would never let my daughter go to a party dressed like that girl was” or “the girl should not have been drinking.” This basically is saying that the rape is the victim’s fault. Yes, the girl should not have been drinking as she was underage, but being drunk, underage or not, does not mean she deserves to be raped, nor does it mean that if she is raped, it’s her fault! The perpetrators of the crime, the rapists, are ignored, the blame resting firmly on the victim.  

Or, when the perpetrators are discussed, they are given pity.  Several news outlets, including CNN, are focusing on the once promising future of the rapists that is now dashed due to the rapists being labeled as convicted juvenile sex offenders. For instance, Poppy Harlow of CNN said this about the rape: “Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.”[3] Or when Paul Callan, a legal expert, explained to Candy Crowley, a CNN news anchor, that “The most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders… That will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Employers, when looking up their background, will see that they’re registered sex offenders. When they move into a new neighborhood and somebody goes on the Internet, where these things are posted, neighbors will know that they are registered sex offenders.”[4] In other words, these poor two young men being forced to have this awful label put on them that will ruin their lives! How sad, let’s feel pity for them. Meanwhile, the victim’s life was already ruined by the crime, having pictures of her posted all over the internet, and having to go to school with the very people who both raped her and stood idly by while she was being carried out of the house.  Not to mention lasting psychological effects, like PTSD, that may—and often—occur after being put through the traumatic experience of your body being violated. How about how the crime will most likely haunt her for the rest of her life? But no pity in this report on the verdict is spared for the victim, only for the rapists. 

This is called misplaced empathy by many who work in agencies dedicated to preventing and helping victims of sexual assault. Simply put, misplaced empathy is when one empathizes or pities the perpetrator of violence and/or sexual assault instead of the victim. Misplaced empathy was seen a lot in the Jerry Sandusky case with people saying the charges against him were everything from unfair to false. Never mind the victims.

This is where the New York Times article comes in. The article, “In Some States, Gun Rights Trump Orders of Protection” by Michael Luo, examines the N.R.A.’s long history of defending the rights of gun owners over and against those of victims of domestic violence.[5]

The N.R.A. cites violation of gun owners’ second and fifth amendment rights in many of these cases (fifth amendment in that it would make the defendant admit fault by turning over weapons before guilt has been established):

In statehouses across the country, though, the N.R.A. and other gun-rights groups have beaten back legislation mandating the surrender of firearms in domestic violence situations. They argue that gun ownership, as a fundamental constitutional right, would not be stripped away for anything less serious than a felony conviction—and certainly not, as an N.R.A. lobbyist in Washington State put it to legislators, for the “mere issuance of court orders.”[6]

On the other side are the domestic violence agencies and others who say that in the instance of protection orders, “the most volatile of human dramas,” “the right to bear arms must give ground to the need to protect a woman’s [or man’s] life.”[7]

Once again we have a case of misplaced empathy. The N.R.A. is empathizing with gun owners (obviously), but doing so while turning a seemingly blind eye at the victims of domestic violence. And what makes it especially depressing is the statistics:

Intimate partner homicides account for nearly half the women killed every year…. More than half of these women are killed with a firearm. And a significant percentage were likely to have obtained protection orders against their eventual killers. (A 2001 study, published in Criminal Justice Review, of women slain by intimate partners in 10 cities put that number at one in five).[8]

With statistics like these, it makes sense for courts to at least consider taking away firearms from people convicted of domestic violence. As Kristine Hall, policy director for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance said in the New York Times article, “There’s often recognition that firearms and domestic violence is a lethal combination, but it’s followed quickly with concerns about taking away an individual’s right to possess a firearm.”[9] Misplaced empathy. You can’t cry “oh, my rights are being violated by the courts taking away my weapons.” No, when you beat or rape someone you are infringing on their rights so it makes sense that you no longer get to have the rights to bear arms. (It’s also interesting to note, though, that when it comes to gun manufacturer cases against gun owners/consumers the N.R.A. seems to give up its interest in preserving gun owners’ rights in favor of that of the manufacturers).[10]

By no means am I trying to say that rapists and perpetrators of domestic violence do not deserve empathy. They are still people. Many with proper counseling and batterer intervention programs can relearn how to be in healthy relationships with others and most, if not all, feel remorse for their actions. The misplaced empathy occurs when the empathy shown towards the perpetrator of the crime grievously outweighs, belittles, or is at the expense that of the victim. In the report by CNN on the Steubenville rape trial, there was little said on the victim at all, precious air time devoted instead towards selling the story of these two high school athletes whose lives are ruined by this court system. As Mallory Ortberg of Gawker.com wrote:

It's perfectly understandable, when reporting on a rape trial, to discuss the length and severity of the sentence; it is less understandable to discuss the end of two convicted rapists' future athletic and academic careers as if it were somehow divorced from the laws of cause and effect. Their dreams and hopes were not crushed by an impersonal, inexorable legal system; Mays and Richmond raped a girl and have been sentenced accordingly. Had they not raped her, they would not be spending at least one year each in a juvenile detention facility….

Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond are not the "stars" of the Steubenville rape trial. They aren't the only characters in a drama playing out in eastern Ohio. And yet a CNN viewer learning about the Steubenville rape verdict is presented with dynamic, sympathetic, complicated male figures, and a nonentity of an anonymous victim, the "lasting effects" of whose graphic, public sexual assault are ignored. Small wonder, then, that anyone would find themselves on the side of these men—these poor young men, who were very good at taking tests and playing sports when they were not raping their classmates.[11]

Pity and empathy is not a zero sum game. One is allowed to feel pity for both parties—the victim and perpetrator. After all, it really is sad that these two high school students effectively ruined their chances at going to a great school on a football scholarship and have to go to a juvenile detention facility. But that pity should not come at the expense or as Ortberg put it, nonentity, of a high school student who was raped and now has to deal with lasting effects of that sexual assault. Likewise, it is sad that a gun owner may no longer be allowed to have weapons as a result of a protection order filed against him/her, but the lasting fear and especially safety of victims of domestic violence should not be ignored or outweighed by the rights of the perpetrators. It’s time we stopped worrying so much about the rights, hopes, and futures of perpetrators and instead start acknowledging the rights, hopes, futures, not to mention safety and needs, of the victims. After all, their lives may depend on it.

[1] http://www.onenewspage.com/n/Celebrities/74vr1pqo4/Steubenville-Prosecutors-Say-16-More-Minors-Face-Charges.htm
[2] http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/03/17/17346127-verdicts-in-steubenville-high-school-rape-trial?lite&gt1=43001
[3] Embedded Video, http://gawker.com/5991003/cnn-reports-on-the-promising-future-of-the-steubenville-rapists-who-are-very-good-students
[4] Ibid.
[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/18/us/facing-protective-orders-and-allowed-to-keep-guns.html
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] http://www.vpc.org/fact_sht/nraindus.htm
[11] http://gawker.com/5991003/cnn-reports-on-the-promising-future-of-the-steubenville-rapists-who-are-very-good-students

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Care Bears Teach a Lesson on Grace

 Yesterday’s Gospel reading, Luke 15.1-3, llb-32, was, of course, the famous Prodigal Son parable. For those who don’t know, the story goes something like this: A man has two bratty kids. One asks for his half of his inheritance money then runs out and spends it all on all sorts of fun vices like Starbucks drinks (probably). Before long the bratty kid spent all his money and ends up working as a slave on a farm, eating alongside the pigs. He then realizes that his dad’s slaves get treated better than he does, so he goes back home with the intent to ask his father to be a slave, since he considers himself not worthy of being called his father’s son anymore. Before he even gets to his dad’s house, his dad sees him and runs out, embraces his son, and throws his bratty kid a big party. His dad says “The son of mine was lost but now is found, was dead but now is alive, yippee!” (Message translation?). The dad’s other bratty son gets all jealous and pissy and says “How come you never through me a big party and I’m a perfect goodie two shoes! (Also Message translation?). His dad shakes his head and says “Son, you are always with me, all that is mine is yours, but your brother was dead but now is alive again.” (Oh, and fun trivia fact while I’m on it-- prodigal means wasteful, not repentant or evil or anything else like that). 

 The basic point of the parable, which is part of a string of parables about lost things (a sheep, a coin, etc. etc.), is to say that God’s grace knows no bounds. One could say (and many Biblical scholars have) that the father (God) is the prodigal one, wasting all this fine food and drink and money on his bratty kid. In the lost sheep parable, a sheep wonders away from the fold only for the shepherd (God) to leave all the other sheep behind to find it. Or how about the missing coin, where a woman (God—yes, God is a woman in this parable. Deal.) searches through her whole house, tearing it apart, to find this lost coin. In other words, one cannot wonder far enough to be lost from God’s grace.

It’s kind of a neat story. God’s grace and love is so great that nothing anyone can do can separate themselves from it (now I’m paraphrasing Paul. Oh dear). It is unfortunate, then, that many preachers focus on some supposed repentance of the bratty son as the means by which he is found. This idea doesn’t really fit in with the story. In the context of the other two parables, the sheep and coin do nothing in order to be found. They aren’t having some change of heart. No! The sheep just wanders stupidly around til the shepherd finds it, the coin is just a coin so it can’t have a change of heart or repent. Even the kid in the parable doesn’t repent, because, by the end of the parable he still doesn’t get it! He goes to his father saying “I am not worthy to be called your son,” missing the entire point. Worth has nothing to do with his father’s\God’s love and grace. Our culture likes to think that one must prove her or himself to be considered worthy—the very opposite idea of the parable.

This idea is a common theme in children aimed programming. The protagonist, in a repeat of the Herculean Trials, proves her or his worth through a series of trials that often test the protagonist’s dedication, vision, and usually climaxes with an epiphonic change of heart. For instance, in Wreck it Ralph (2012), a Disney/Pixar film, the protagonist, Ralph, yearns to be a hero, and after a series of trials proving his worth—namely, willingness to sacrifice himself for others—Ralph finally proves to others and himself that he has what it takes to be a hero. This theme is common in Disney films—the protagonist overcomes many obstacles to finally prove her or his worth. In Mulan (1998), the main character, a young woman named Mulan, poses as a man and fights in the all-male army in ancient China. She quickly becomes one of the most well-liked and respected members of the army, only for her secret to be revealed. She is outed as a woman and is kicked out of the military. Only after saving the emperor at the end of the film is she welcomed back into the ranks and considered a hero. And, just to show that I’m not picking on Disney, the same themes can be found in films from DreamWork’s 2005 Madagascar to Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed Hugo (2011). 

These films aim to teach team work, hard work, and following one’s dreams will make one successful. One can almost hear the moral of the story being pounded over and over into the heads of the young children: if you just work hard enough, your dreams will come true. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to add a few musical numbers and heartwarming epiphonic moments into the mix.

Few children’s films break out from this mold, but one franchise in particular seems to have been challenging this paradigm since its inception… the Care Bears (who of my Facebook friends could have seen that coming?)! These cuddly bears have appeared in two theatrical films, four distinct television series, greeting cards, toys, books, food… the list goes on. Their mission is to teach everyone about the value of caring, but also, apparently, about grace. 

 In The Care Bears’ Big Wish Movie (poorly animated by Nelvana, released in 2005), Wish Bear’s wishes keep getting her into trouble with the other Care Bears when they keep back firing. Frustrated, Wish Bear wishes for some friends who love wishing just as much as she does. Soon, three new bears come to Care-a-Lot: Me Bear (a selfish diva), Messy Bear (the Pigsty of Care-a-Lot), and Too Loud Bear (probably modeled after the neighbors who live in the apartment above me). These three bears are welcomed by the Care Bears into Care-a-Lot, who help build the new Care Bears an elaborate house and put up with the noisy, messy, and selfish bears (even though  thee three new bears grate on everyone—even Wish Bear’s—nerves). Soon, the three new bears accidentally ruin Care-a-Lot, draining it of its color and even using up all of Wish Bear’s wishes. The three bears realize what they’ve done and apologize. The Care Bears ask Wish Bear to help wish Care-a-Lot back to its former glory, but Wish Bear declines, realizing that wishing is fun, but is nothing without putting in some work to reach one’s goals. Together, the Care Bears fix Care-a-Lot, and the three new bears—Me, Messy, and Too Loud—ask if they can remain living in Care-a-Lot, which, of course, the Care Bears happily agree to.

 On the surface, it might seem like just another kids movie saying if you work hard enough, you will overcome your challenges and be accepted for who you are. And while that theme is certainly a piece of the film, I think the story bears (heh) much more resemblance to the Prodigal Son parable than one might think. First, the three new bears are welcomed into Care-a-Lot without hesitation. Even after they practically destroy the Care Bears’ home, the Care Bears do not kick them out. And when the three bears humbly ask if they are allowed to stay in Care-a-Lot after realizing all the harm they did, the Care Bears do not hesitate in saying yes. Because, their stay in Care-a-Lot was NEVER a question to the other Care Bears.

This theme goes back to the inclusion of Grumpy Bear in the original ten Care Bears. All nine of the other Care Bears were practically (and sometimes literally) the poster children for rainbows, butterflies, and Pepto Bismol pink happiness. But not Grumpy Bear. His surly expression and downer attitude made him a stark contrast to the others. But he was still very much a true, storm-cloud blue Care Bear. In the 2007 direct-to-video release Oopsy Does It (much more nicely animated by Kidtoon films), the protagonist, a new Care Bear named Oopsy, does not even have a tummy symbol. But he is still counted among the ranks of the Care Bears. And while the film features Oopsy going through many of the same trials and tribulations as we see in other films to learn to accept himself, he was always, from the very first moment of the film, accepted by the other Care Bears.

The lesson the Prodigal Son and, oddly enough, the Care Bears, are trying to teach us is not how to find ourselves back in the graces of God (or fantasy land of Care-a-Lot), but, rather, to learn to accept ourselves as is, knowing that God already has and does. That doesn’t mean we can’t try for better or learn some lessons along the way (after all, James says faith without works is dead… sanctification vs. justification for all those theology nerds out there), but maybe if we stopped asking God to treat us like slaves long enough to notice her open arms (oops, referred to the divine as a girl again. Whoopsie), then maybe we would be able to accept others with open arms, too.