Because I’m Feeling Pragmatic: Rorty and Rape Culture

by zunguzungu

Back the early 90’s, in response to the war in Bosnia, Richard Rorty argued that when we talk about human rights, we too easily presume that what we are doing is making a rational case, that we presume the correct thing to do is also and necessarily the reasonable thing to do. And, as philosophers will do, he starts with Plato:

Plato thought that the philosopher’s task was to answer questions like “Why should I be moral? Why is it rational to be moral? Why is it in my interest to be moral? Why is it in the interest of human beings as such to be moral?” He thought this because he believed the best way to deal with people like Thrasymachus and Callicles was to demonstrate to them that they had an interest of which they were unaware, an interest in being rational, in acquiring self-knowledge. Plato thereby saddled us with a distinction between the true and false self…

Thrasymachus and Callicles, of course, are two figures used by Plato to represent the willful refusal to accept that there is a rational reason to be moral. They demand to be shown why morality is reasonable, and so Plato responds by arguing with them, demonstrating that ethical human society is not only grounded in rationality, but demonstrable by means of enlightened conversation among enlightened people.

After musing on the real world, however, Rorty suggests that this approach to right and wrong is problematic because it actually gives us very little to work with:

It would have been better if Plato had decided, as Aristotle was to decide, that there was nothing much to be done with people like Thrasymachus and Callicles, and that the problem was how to avoid having children who would be like Thrasymachus and Callicles. By insisting that he could reeducate people who had matured without acquiring appropriate moral sentiments by invoking a higher power than sentiment, the power of reason, Plato got moral philosophy off on the wrong foot. He led moral philosophers to concentrate on the rather rare figure of the psychopath, the person who has no concern for any human being other than himself. Moral philosophy has systematically neglected the much more common case: the person whose treatment of a rather narrow range of [human beings]  is morally impeccable, but who remains indifferent to those outside of this range, the ones he or she thinks of as pseudohumans.

Plato set things up so that moral philosophers think they have failed unless they convince the rational egoist that he should not be an egoist — convince him by telling him about his true, unfortunately neglected, self. Bat the rational egoist is not the problem. The problem is the gallant and honorable Serb who sees Muslims as circumcised dogs. It is the brave soldier and good comrade who loves and is loved by his mates, but who thinks of women as dangerous malevolent whores and bitches….it does little good to point out, to the people I have just described, that many Muslims and women are good at mathematics or engineering or jurisprudence. Resentful young Nazi toughs were quite aware that many Jews were clever and learned, but this only added to the pleasure they took in beating them up.

I’ve re-read the essay because I’m thinking about #mooreandme, and because I think the Rorty piece is useful for thinking about how one deals with a “rape culture.” Rape culture defines the normality by which violent acts become unspeakable as such; as The Rotund describes it, after a painful story of being raped by her boyfriend in situation that left both of them utterly confused as to what had happened, and even about whose fault it was,

This is how rape culture manifests for me: a decision was made for me, in direct opposition to my stated wishes, and I still, in many ways, find myself culpable. After all, I said to myself at the time, I was engaging in other nonpenetrative consensual sex acts with him. After all, didn’t it make sense that he got the wrong idea?

In hindsight, it absolutely does NOT make sense. In hindsight, that should never be the expected outcome of that kind of situation. But also in hindsight, he was just as much a victim of rape culture as I was – because men are enculturated to view certain things are normal, certain things as expected, certain things as challenges rather than boundaries. He lived in the same world I did – a world that continues to teach boys that no does not really mean no when it should be teaching that the only consent that really counts is enthusiastic consent.

Saying that the boyfriend in this case was “just as much a victim of rape culture as I was” is, of course, only true in a particular sense — since the rapist is never exactly as much a victim as the rape victim — but that particular sense is important: a system of signification and meaning and cognition enfolds both members of that culture which makes it difficult to imagine the consciousness of a woman saying “no,” in myriad insidious and ultimately harmful ways. Rape culture makes sexual violence possible by making it not scan as rape, by de-legitimizing the victim’s agency to say no (in a way not so dissimilar from the problem Rorty is addressing: the ways that causing “their” deaths can seem as something other than “our” violence). And one contributes to rape culture not by an explicit apology for rape, but by making it more and more difficult to say such an event as rape in the first place.

Which is why I think the rational appeal against “rape apologism” is not only the least effective one, but it doesn’t really approach the real problem. I (lightly) criticized Sady Doyle’s use of statistical profiling here, while emphatically approving of that broader project for this reason: saying that because 92% of rapes go unreported, there is a 92% chance that Julian Assange is guilty is not only a flagrant misuse of statistics, but it’s completely beside the point. Julian Assange’s guilt or innocence is not the issue here; the problem is that Michael Moore, Keith Olbermann, and Naomi Wolf made it harder to imagine how a woman could legitimately say no to sex, thereby making it easier for rape not to scan as rape at all in the first place. Wolf’s was the most pernicious:

Wolf: Again and again and again, Assange did what Jaclyn, and everyone who cares about rape, and I, say you should do. He consulted with the women. … He stopped when women said ‘let’s talk about the condom,’ he discussed it, they reached an agreement, and they went ahead. He didn’t have sex with that woman when she was asleep. I agree that you need to be awake and conscious and not drunk to consent. We agree about that.

Friedman: He did have sex — that’s the allegation –

Wolf: Can you just bear with me?

Friedman: He started when she was asleep. That is the allegation.

Wolf: Well, you know — he started to have sex with her when she was asleep. Correct.

Friedman: And that’s rape.

Wolf: She was half asleep. Then she woke up. Then they discussed how they would have sex, under what conditions, which is to me negotiating consent … they had a negotiation in which they both agreed not to use a condom, and then he went ahead and they made love…

Friedman: If someone asks me twenty times, do I want to have sex with them, or do I want to have sex without a condom, or whatever sexual act we’re negotiating, and I say no twenty times, and the twenty-first time I say yes because I am worn down, and because I’m being pressured and coerced and I’m afraid, and because I woke up to him already raping me, and I’m freaked out, that is not real consent. That is not a chance to have actual consent. That’s not legitimate consent.

Wolf: Well, I guess you and I will have to part ways.

I don’t think you can rationally convince Naomi Wolf that she’s wrong about this, and not because she’s an irrational person. She’s fully rational, but she’s also chosen her side, and is filtering her thought process through a set of beliefs that no process of rational conversation is going to change; the more you talk with her about this (in this way) the more you reinforce her in her sense of rightness. She knows that what Julian Assange did wasn’t rape because, while both she and Friedman are in possession of the same set of facts, they have a distinctly different sense of what rape is, and, in that sense, are proceeding from a very different set of facts. Conversation is not going to change that, any more than you‘re going to convince Richard Rorty’s list of human rights violators that the class of person whose rights they’re violating were conceptually appropriate for that label. The un-thinkability of such a person being that kind of victim is the problem, not the description of that act itself.

How do you overcome such a problem? This is what Richart Rorty says:

We Eurocentric intellectuals like to suggest that we, the paradigm humans, have overcome this primitive parochialism by using that paradigmatic human faculty, reason. So we say that failure to concur with us is due to “prejudice.” Our use of these terms in this way may make us nod in agreement when Colin McGinn tells us, in the introduction to his recent book, that learning to tell right from wrong is not as hard as learning French. The only obstacles to agreeing with his moral views, McGinn explains, are “prejudice, vested interest and laziness.”

One can see what McGinn means: If, like many of us, you teach students who have been brought up in the shadow of the Holocaust, brought up believing that prejudice against racial or religious groups is a terrible thing, it is not very hard to convert them to standard liberal views about abortion, gay rights, and the like. You may even get them to stop eating animals. All you have to do is convince them that all the arguments on the other side appeal to “morally irrelevant” considerations. You do this by manipulating their sentiments in such a way that they imagine themselves in the shoes of the despised and oppressed. Such students are already so nice that they are eager to define their identity in no exclusionary terms. The only people they have trouble being nice to are the ones they consider irrational the religious fundamentalist, the smirking rapist, or the swaggering skinhead. Producing generations of nice, tolerant, well-off, secure, other-respecting students of this sort in all parts of the world is just what is needed — indeed all that is needed —  to achieve an Enlightenment utopia. The more youngsters like this we can raise, the stronger and more global our human rights culture will become.

But it is not a good idea to encourage these students to label “irrational” the intolerant people they have trouble tolerating. For that Platonic-Kantian epithet suggests that, with only a little more effort, the good and rational part of these other people’s souls could have triumphed over the bad and irrational part. It suggests that we good people know something these bad people do not know, and that it is probably their own silly fault that they do not know it. All they have to do, after all, is to think a little harder, be a little more self-conscious, a little more rational.

But the bad people’s beliefs are not more or less “irrational” than the belief that race, religion, gender, and sexual preference are all morally irrelevant, that these are all trumped by membership in the biological species. As used by moral philosophers like McGinn, the term “irrational behavior” means no more than “behavior of which we disapprove so strongly that our spade is turned when asked why we disapprove of it.” It would be better to teach our students that these bad people are no less rational, no less clearheaded, no more prejudiced, than we good people who respect otherness.

The bad people’s problem is that they were not so lucky in the circumstances of their upbringing as we were. Instead of treating as irrational all those people out there who are trying to find and kill Salman Rushdie…it would be better — more specific, more suggestive of possible remedies — to think of them as deprived of two more concrete things: security and sympathy. By “security” I mean conditions of life sufficiently risk-free as to make one’s difference from others inessential to one’s self-respect, one’s sense of worth. These conditions have been enjoyed by Americans and Europeans — the people who dreamed up the human rights culture — much more than they have been enjoyed by anyone else. By “sympathy” I mean the sort of reaction that the Athenians had more of after seeing Aeschylus’ The Persians than before, the sort that white Americans had more of after reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin than before, the sort that we have more of after watching TV programs about the genocide in Bosnia. Security and sympathy go together, for the same reasons that peace and economic productivity go together. The tougher things are, the more you have to be afraid of, the more dangerous your situation, the less you can afford the time or effort to think about what things might be like for people with whom you do not immediately identify. Sentimental education only works on people who can relax long enough to listen.

There are, it seems to me, some serious limitations to this argument, starting with the easy psychoanalysis of people through their poverty and ending with his effort to make leisure time a necessary precondition for morality. On the one hand, a great many quite “secure” people have time to “listen to sentimental education,” and they choose to listen to “hate education” instead; on the other hand, people with leisure time are also often people with privilege and an interest, therefore, in defending it. We don’t want the Iraqi’s to suffer needlessly, of course, but if they threaten our national interest by nationalizing our oil or something, well… You get the point. If a bunch of random Afghani and Pakistani civilians have to die as collateral damage as robot drones hunt down the terrorists that make us unsafe, well, our defense of our own privilege is precisely the problem, and Rorty has no way of accounting for a narrative in which “we” are the bad guys. So he loses me there.

But the nut of the insight is, I think, quite applicable in this case; a conversation between Michael Moore and Sady Doyle is not necessarily, or could be other than, a conversation between fundamental opponents; it is, or could be, a conversation between people that want to be on the same side, where they’re both looking for a way to make that happen. People whose fundamental interests are misaligned are not going to have that to work with, but in this case, the opportunity is there. So the power of a statistic is precisely not in using it to rationally argue or prove a particular point; the power of a statistic is in making the listener feel and sympathize with and share its emotive and subjective meaning. And in that case, it only works as part of a story, a sympathetic narrative; the point in saying “92%” is not as a prelude to rational computation (it could be 60% or 100%), but as a way of saying: “Feel the injustice! Feel what I feel!” And given the right set of circumstances, it can work. But what’s happened, then, is not a triumph of rationality, but of empathy, of sympathy, an agreement to say “Yes, you and I, we are different and we are the same.” There is nothing fundamentally rational about that. And yet, to be pragmatic about it, that’s an awfully powerful and important thing to have more of.

Update: Commenters have posted some great links below, and you should click them: