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A perfect mess

This is the third in a series of posts looking at the crusades mounted on both sides of the Duke lacrosse case. The first for an introduction and overview. This post continues directly from the previous one about the potbanging protest held at the lacrosse team captains’ house soon after the rape allegation became public. There I looked at an interview with one of the organizers, Manju Rajendran, and an essay by Brian Proffitt, another activist.

Proffitt’s simplifying frame tends to reduce accuser and accused to archetypes—Rapist and Survivor. Another level of abstraction is close at hand, though, in his list of discriminations that rape survivors are leading the resistance to (“violence, homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, and capitalism”) and Rajendran’s sweeping claim to be calling the lacrosse team to account for “the racism and the sexism and the classism” of what they did. Rapist and Survivor become Oppressor and Oppressed. In an essay “Perfect Offenders, Perfect Victim: The Limitations of Spectacularity in the Aftermath of the Lacrosse Team Incident”, posted a month after the lacrosse party, Wahneema Lubiano, a professor in Duke’s Department of African and African American Studies, critiques the habit of “perfecting” the protagonists so that the role of oppression or prejudice in an incident is blatantly obvious and therefore “spectacular.” The inevitable resistance sets up a polarizing dynamic:

I hear desire on the part of various constituencies for the comfort either of being able to construct a perfect offender and a perfect victim, and, therefore, some kind of resolution, or the converse position—the comfort of saying that the impossibility of constructing a perfect offender and a perfect victim means that nothing happened and that nothing needs to be resolved.

Lubiano urges like-minded activists responding to the lacrosse case to get off this treadmill, since it causes “[w]hatever is routine about this incident [to be] marginalized while a desire for the incident to live up to its most horrific possibilities fights it out in public discussion with its rhetorical other….” A good description, I think, of the lacrosse-case version of a culture-war shouting match, and her description of the dynamic as a “desire… for comfort” is apt. She describes it, in sympathetic terms, as the comfort of an “understanding [that is] complete, coherent, and visible” but I’m inclined to put it in less benign terms, as the comfort of simplistic moral certainty or, in some cases, the fastidious, egocentric comfort of piling all the dirt on those people over there. And it seems that it’s more comforting to be on the side that’s constructing perfection. It was the discovery of a crime against the team committed by an eminently perfectible collection of Duke faculty that grabbed KC Johnson’s attention. With total dedication to ferreting out the “most horrific possibilities” in everything they’ve done, he’s constructed a perfectly skewed Wonderland, using the so-called “Group of 88” as a sponge to blot all the stigma off his side and spread it on the other. Among the most perfect of his many offenders is the one who “gleefully labeled the players the ‘perfect offenders’” (or so Johnson would like you to believe) in the course of telling anyone who would listen, and without a trace of glee that I can find, that such “perfecting” was a bad idea—Wahneema Lubiano. (I’ll reinforce what I said in my introduction to this series, though: I’ve never communicated with Prof. Lubiano. She’s not responsible for my opinions and interpretations and I’m not responsible for hers. If anything I say about her work bothers you, please complain to me and not to her.)

It seems to me that the controversy has revealed not so much the limitations but the dangers of spectacularity, or at least the dangers of actively “perfecting” in order to achieve it. Doing so tends to put an bloated frame around the incident, call up broad characterizations, and debase the language. In the MSNBC interview, Rajendran’s frame is “a nation… wrestling with a long legacy of institutionalized racism and a whole culture of sexual violence… with centuries of oppression,” which, she suggests, the community outrage will help to undo. That’s a hell of a lot of baggage for one incident to carry. In the show as a whole (Rita Cosby Live & Direct), Rajendran ends up as one act in a many-ring circus that includes an epic shouting match about an incident in which a man was shot 50 times by the police, another high-speed chase that ends in an explosion, and a woman who looks like a man interviewed from jail about how she supposedly kidnapped her own kids. This must be what Lubiano has in mind when she mentions “the spectacle that is news and the news as spectacle,” perhaps trying to suggest that activists should avoid feeding the beast. Then there’s Houston Baker’s temper tantrum—his open letter to the administration at Duke peppered with “privilege,” “white,” “male,” “athletic,” and “violent” in various combinations. His concern over the “horrific” incident seems to be based more on type of people involved than the nature of the acts alleged. A word like “privilege,” which should have real meaning in an incident that begins with two women’s bodies being ordered up like $400 pizzas, turns into a bludgeon (I think “entitlement” is more to the point, anyway). This kind of thing opens the door for the wholesale dismissal, on DIW and elsewhere, of virtually any criticism of the lacrosse team that invokes race or gender and to the parodies that lurk a step or two behind it—“reverse racism” and the like—which thrive on language debased by careless, reflexive “perfecting.”

To “perfect” is also to dehumanize. The way the lacrosse players were treated as clones of a generic “privileged white male” has been widely observed, and it was no credit to those who, in other contexts, would be quick to denounce the cheap generalizations of racists. But idealizing the accuser was even more integral to the thinking of the activists I’ve quoted, and it seems to have compromised their ability to think sensibly and realistically about events and issues they care about. No matter how much sincere concern was involved, the perfected accuser was little more than a comforting fabrication that made it easy to judge and to act, and do so rashly. I suppose such a thing might serve a cause or a community in some situations. But it seems more likely to undermine than to help a woman bringing rape allegations, since she will almost certainly look bad and the accused good relative to their perfected stand-ins. The effect was stark as the lacrosse case progressed, but it seems to me that in any rape case “perfecting” the accuser can only add fuel to the legal scrutiny of her character, and likely to any public scrutiny, as well—the last thing she needs.

The “listening” statement—the basis of an endlessly distracting controversy—shows in practice, I believe, what Lubiano was getting at when she advised others to “move from the specific harms associated with the incident alleged at the house on N. Buchanan Blvd. in order to look at the more difficult to ‘see,’ the less spectacularly visible harms of more generally structured and distributed sexism and racism.” The ad is built around a collection of quotes that gives a kaleidoscopic impression of the state of mind of a group of minority students in the wake of the rape allegation. The three comments about “self-segregation” and generic indignities of parties and classes, taken from an article in the Independent Weekly, most clearly convey the “generally structured and distributed” experience. Most of the other quotes show the students feeling anxious or at odds with the community or the institution in the heightened atmosphere post-allegation. Notably missing, especially in comparison to the protests and to statements like Houston Baker’s, is any direct comment about the lacrosse team’s behavior, guilt, or character. The closest contact with “the specific harms associated with the incident” is by way of one woman’s anxious imagination (“If something like this happens to me…”)—not a factual statement about the party but a representation of how vulnerable she felt. Whether or not it was it a good idea to put that quote in the ad without explanation or qualification is an excellent question—one of many about how effective or appropriate or representative the ad was. In principle they’re worth discussing, but not in a climate where those most interested in the ad insist on treating it as nothing more than a smoking gun. Questions like that are off track for me at the moment, anyway—all I’m trying to do here is explore the connections between Lubiano’s “Spectacularity” article, the listening statement, and the potbanging protest.

The reading that pulled the ad into the swirl of controversy dwelt especially on two lines—the mention of “what happened to this young woman” near the top, taken to indicate a firm belief that a rape occurred at the party, and the nod to “protesters making collective noise” near the end, which serves as a versatile link between the ad and anything a protestor has done or said about the lacrosse case. The central message of the ad as I see it doesn’t need a reference to protestors and doesn’t require the rape allegation to be true, so I don’t think either line is necessary as written. The mention of protestors seems especially superfluous, and it’s on that point that I’m most sympathetic to the criticism of the ad—it’s hard to reconcile the blanket endorsement of protestors followed by a long list of faculty signatures with the crowd on the sidewalk at Buchanan Blvd. holding a banner that says “Castrate” and hounding out the lacrosse team as rapists. I find it odd and disappointing that those who signed the ad and continued to speak out and editorialize didn’t meet the issue head on. Is all collective noise really good collective noise? The one line in the “concerned faculty” statement issued last January—“We do not endorse every demonstration that took place at the time”—was worse than nothing, I’m afraid, since all it did was to acknowledge that the issue was being dodged.

With the image of that crowd on the sidewalk in mind, it’s hard to reconcile the mention of protestors with an intention to steer clear of spectacularity. I have no way of knowing what image “protestors making collective noise” brought to mind for Lubiano in early April 2006, though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that one. What is more clear is that even though the ad and the potbanging protest come from the same general political mindset, they are worlds apart in purpose and tone, and in exactly the way Lubiano articulates in her essay. The protest is addressed to “the most horrific possibilities”—a brutal gang rape—while, based on the student quotes she selected, Lubiano seems to be pushing for a day-to-day life at Duke in which African American students feel fully secure, confident that their perspective and experience won’t be dismissed when it’s inconvenient or challenging, and that they’re not marked as threats or colorful sex toys. If nothing else, the gulf between intention and interpretation makes a fascinating study in non-communication, and maybe there’s even something to be learned from it.

There’s another, more fundamental difference between the discourse of the protestors and the text of the ad, one that was aggressively sidelined when the latter became a rhetorical football: in the ad there’s an attempt to deal with people. It’s pretty successful, too—the quotes mesh with my experience of students at Duke, at least. The potbanging protest was, as I see it, conspicuously not about people but rather about pawns. My strong impression is that those who see the ad as rank prejudgment of the team read the quotes as the words of puppets. The reduction of people to pawns and puppets is a constant of ideologically polarized debate, whether you think of it as spectacularity or as culture war. There’s often a Hollywood semblance of humanity in the portrayal of the good side, but whether it’s the activist’s sanctified survivor or the bland but perfectly polarized sympathies that structure DIW, it’s something less than human. I think everyone involved knows and expects that they’re dealing with pawns (knows and expects it, that is, from the other side). The ad put humans on the favored side and leaves the other side open, to be filled in by the imagination of the reader. Considered in isolation, it’s an improvement on angels and fiends, but maybe not much different in context—readers sensitized by the broad-brush rhetoric directed at the team naturally drew on that to fill in the blank.

The first and perhaps the most admirable line of the ad—“We are listening to our students”—was another humanizing touch that may have had an unintentionally divisive effect, since it was only the favored group of students who were actually heard. I accept the implicit explanation of the choice of students to highlight—in general “the most vulnerable among us” because least well established, most likely to be alienated or marginalized or misunderstood. At that moment, though, among the most obviously vulnerable students were the ones under investigation by an unethical prosecutor. A less obvious group of students who might have been feeling especially vulnerable were the ones who were being stretched across the fault lines of race or gender or whatever. The point is that listening, of all things, shouldn’t and needn’t be selective, and it doesn’t seem like a good idea to give the impression that it is at a time of high tension and polarization. It’s a shame that the response of those who were offended by the ad has never, as far as I’ve seen, been to try to listen more closely and more broadly.

The legacy of the potbanging protest is not pretty. Rendering facile, sweeping judgment on 40-some young men they knew little about did a great service for the crowd on the other side that’s packaged the incident and its aftermath as a “hoax”—a story as comforting in its one-sided simplicity as in it’s perfect harmonization of justice, decency, and good sense with the good old social pecking order. It’s a position that needs a diametrical opposite in order to thrive—you have to have a lie in order to have a liestopper—and as the Liestoppers page I linked in earlier shows, the “Castrate” banner has a place of honor in the shrine that gives their project meaning and urgency. It’s not just that the protest left priceless relics for the other side’s endless re-incitement, though. It was in effect a conspiracy with the “rhetorical other” to make war on ambiguity from both sides. The only way for a case like this to shed useful light on the real, everyday harms of social or racial or gender inequity is to put it in a frame that’s wide enough to contain the ambiguity of real everyday people. Otherwise it’s just another cheesy comic book.

Speaking of that, the next stop is Wonderland

{ 9 } Comments

  1. azng | December 3, 2007 at 00:05 | Permalink

    This post is a nice try. It is an appeal for nuance and consideration. In the end it’s a form of special pleading-“my fellow faculty members are concerned about racism and sexism. They tried to show this concern in the context of the lacrosse case. The polarized atmosphere of the time required both sides to be diametically opposed. They wanted to give a voice to students who felt marginalized. They do not deserve the criticism heaped on them by those who support the lacrosse players.” I’ll try to explain my difficulty with this.

    I’m going to bring out my biases from the beginning. I’m a criminal defense attorney and have never been a prosecutor. I’m also the mother of a high school lacrosse player who is currently being recruited by Duke. I do have problems with him attending the school when I consider the behavior of the faculty during the lacrosse case. One of my reactions is that the Group of 88 and their supporters have the same notions of due process for lacrosse players that George Bush and Alberto Gonzales have for terrorists. Presume them guilty and don’t worry about using unconstitutional procedures to convict them.

    I understand this statement will offend many people. It was intended to. I’m sure that all of the faculty members who signed the “listening” ad care about the well-being of their students. They want to see them learn and come to new knowledge in the college environment. The faculty want to create real change in the world. They may not have intended to cause any harm to the indicted players. They wanted to make a stand against sexual violence and racism. I think they have failed.

    It’s easy to be against racism and sexual violence. Does anyone out side of the margins stand for it? Bill O’Reilly is against it. The Group of 88 is against it. When you come out against sexual violence and racism, it can be a way of framing the argument. Someone who disagrees with you is for the very thing you oppose. If you disapprove of the listening ad, you support sexual violence and racism. The ad helps to frame the support for players as supporting racism. The presumption of innocence and the due process owed the players by the state is lost.

    The Duke faculty gave aid to a gross over-reaching of power by the state in the form of a prosecutor and a police department. Yes the players were able to mount a defense. But it was done by their families-the players themselves were techinically indigent. The costs to the families was not covered by cash at hand but likely retirement plans cashed in and loans against assets. There is nothing ambigious about this. The faculty would likely not have been able to stop Mr. Nifong’s actions. But the ad , their later silence and the current comments seems to suggest that they approve of what he did. It’s ok to presume guilt to fight racism. It’s ok to violate line-up standards to show disapproval of sexual assault.

    That refusal to admit that they were wrong is what disturbs me the most. Can a scholar never admit they made a mistake? Can a scholar never change their mind when new evidence comes along? Can a scholar understand that their arguement was not understood and change it? Must you say “you misread and need to learn how to read correctly.” I read the “listening” very differently from the faculty. What am I missing? I believe it presumes guilty and is a direct comment on the case. I also must add that the silence about the settelment of Duke with the players seems to be something of an institutional admission of guilt. No one will ever know what motivated the university. But money that could have gone to things such as financial aid and expansion of programs went to pay for the defense of these “privileged” players. Is the absolute silence on this point an admission of some kind by the university and the faculty?

    Here is the big question-why should my family and I encourage our son to attend Duke? Why should he undertake the burden of debt he will need to attend? Why should I increase my law practice dramatically to earn more income to support the salaries of faculty members who think the constitution does not apply to their students? I don’t like that it comes down to money but it is a consideration. I understand the faculty believes I have raised a racist and sexist child who desparately needs their education. I would like to send him to a university where critical thought and scholarship takes place. I don’t think enough of that is happening at Duke. The lacrosse case showed that to the world.

    ~   ~   ~

    My response, which took a long time coming, is below.

  2. Tortmaster | December 6, 2007 at 12:08 | Permalink

    The 88’s Listening ad came out less than two weeks after the public first learned about the alleged rape. The only source for this information was second-hand news from television and from newspapers.

    Lubiano took this second-hand news and crafted the Listening ad. It was denied that the Lisening ad was about the Duke rape case, but Lubiano was later found to have specifically alluded to the alleged rape in her e-mail to faculty members she wanted to have sign on to it. Lubiano specifically mentioned the alleged rape, and gave it primary significance for the need for a Listening ad.

    Lubiano apparently purposefully rushed the other faculty members to sign on to the Listening ad. In her e-mail to colleagues, she included a very short deadline. The deadline was coincidentally timed with Nifong’s expected announcement about DNA test results. To me, the DNA announcement is critical in explaining Lubiano’s timing in publishing the Listening ad and in publishing her article about “perfect offenders.”

    After publication of the Listening ad and then after the DNA tests came back negative for the lacrosse players, a colleague of Lubiano’s told the Chronicle that it was a “step backward” or words to that effect.

    It was during this time frame that Lubiano came up with her “perfect offender” and “perfect victim” article. I took it to be intellectual support for the continuation of charges against the innocent Duke students.

    Lubiano’s basic premise: In the real world, there usually are not “perfect victims” or “perfect offenders.” In my mind, this was Lubiano’s attempt to explain away the lack of DNA evidence implicating the lax team. How can anyone explain the extreme coincidence in timing (DNA back - negative; no need for perfect offenders) in any other way?

    On another note, your implication that the Listening ad did not cause much of a stir at the time, and your fixation on the “castrate” banner are interesting. I would suggest that you research the N&O archives and the Duke Chronicle archives. VERY early on, attorneys were commenting on what was happening on the Duke campus to prejudice the boys. The Duke Chronicle had articles, letters and comments about the Listening ad shortly after it was run. Also, the “castrate” banner was on youtube after the potbanging stopped as potbangers celebrated their apparent triumph over evil.

    These are my opinions. Tortmaster

    ~   ~   ~

    I have, believe it or not, read DIW and browsed on Liestoppers and FODU, so I realize that this is the accepted story of Lubiano and the ad in the liestopper community. I’ve also run across too many nasty, dismissive, ignorant, knee-jerk comments about her to treat that story as anything but highly biased. You’re welcome to take or leave my interpretation of her article and the listening ad—I’m just trying to make sense of the words (and from a perspective that doesn’t assume she’s the devil incarnate), not trying to write a whole new history of the case.

    The one thing here that is news to me is that the “castrate” banner was on YouTube after the potbanging stopped. I’m aware of 2 YouTube videos of the protest, both in the account Gotfong and the banner is not visible in either. Is there another? Do you have a link?

  3. Tortmaster | December 8, 2007 at 13:49 | Permalink

    Further comments from Tortmaster have been moved to a separate page, which also explains my comment policy. The comments are:

    1. List of grievances against protestors and Duke faculty.
    2. Interpretation of the “listening” ad.
  4. Ken Duke | December 13, 2007 at 22:44 | Permalink

    Dear azng (at 12/3/07):

    A couple of days ago I posted a comment on “The Other Duke Lacrosse Prosecutor” thread. Later, I ran across your post, and I hope you won’t mind me saying that it expresses many of my own concerns, but much more gracefully and eloquently than I did in my brief post. You obviously put a lot of thought into what you wrote, and I look forward to reading Prof. Zimmerman’s response.

    Ken Duke
    Attorney at Law
    Durham, NC

  5. Robert Zimmerman | December 15, 2007 at 00:13 | Permalink

    Yes, I am long overdue addressing azng’s comment. A lot of it I really can’t answer, which is part of the reason I’ve been putting it off. I don’t, as I’ve said, speak for other Duke faculty. I can’t explain what they thought or what they did, and I’m certainly not pleading anything on their behalf—I wish some of those who were vocal early on would speak up again and address the concerns azng raises.

    There are a few things I can say. Azng comes across as a reasonable and thoughtful person in her comment—I believe she is such a person. And yet…

    I understand the faculty believes I have raised a racist and sexist child who desperately needs their education.

    Boy does that make James Coleman and Prasad Kasibhatla’s criticism of KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor ring true! A few faculty may think that way at Duke and at other institutions as well—and if you’re not comparing Duke to other institutions that have been through similar divisive scandals it’s not a very informative comparison. As far as I’m concerned, Coleman and Kasibhatla hit the nail on the head. Duke is not a massive ideological reeducation facility. Faculty don’t look at every class full of students as another batch of potential converts. In thinking about what kind of experience and education a potential student might get from Duke, there are a hundreds of more important things to worry about. This comment from Nick, a recent alum, might be some help.

    I would hope that James Coleman’s plainly stated opinion that Duke faculty have been misrepresented would carry some weight. Beyond that, a parent with azng’s concerns should seek out the opinions of people who have personal experience with regular old Duke and not just Duke as seen through the lacrosse scandal. I’m not a Duke recruiter or booster, anyway. It’s a fine school but not right for everyone—it definitely wouldn’t have been the right school for me.

    As to azng’s idea that I’m doing some kind of “special pleading” for “nuance and consideration” in thinking about “my fellow faculty members [who] are concerned about racism and sexism,” I’m not. I think nuance and consideration are great things and I hope I model them now and then. But all I’m writing about here is a small piece of the puzzle. My premise is that Lubiano’s “Spectacularity” essay has been misread and misrepresented and that it sheds some light on what she was trying to do when she wrote the “listening” ad. That’s what I get out of the texts, and it’s a matter of interpretation and speculation. I don’t expect it to make the slightest dent on the opinion of anyone who is convinced by DIW’s portrayal of the “Group of 88” (I’ve elaborated on my opinion of the “Group” as a concept in a more recent post). If there’s any opinion that I’m hoping to sway here, it’s the one on the other side that all of the controversy about the “listening” ad is the result of the way it’s been misread and attacked.

  6. Ken Duke | December 15, 2007 at 14:54 | Permalink

    Dear Professor Zimmerman:

    “I wish some of those who were vocal early on would speak up again and address the concerns azng raises.”

    I apologize if I am being too flip, but the old saying, “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” applies.

    The testimony of Reade Seligman at Mike Nifong’s disbarment hearing shows just how horrible things were on the Duke Campus for the players (please see Many people rightfully have pointed out that the accuser — or any woman for that matter — is not an object to be used for enjoyment. Similarly, the players are not cardboard cutouts of rich white males to be used for dart practice — they are flesh and blood people who were literally fighting for their lives while a number of teachers from their own school conspicuously cheered on the prosecution, and most of the remaining faculty stood silently by.

    Thank you having this blog, and for being willing to discuss the case. Unfortunately, though, I do not think you have addressed Ms. anzg’s concerns very well. But that is not your fault. Until Duke openly confronts its actions in the lacrosse case (rather than trying to sweep things under the rug with confidential settlements) there will really be no way to address anzg’s concerns.

    Ken Duke
    Durham, NC

    ~   ~   ~

    I agree that the lacrosse players were reduced to cardboard cutouts and there’s no excuse for it. Oddly, I was using the same metaphor last night in a comment I made to a review of Until Proven Innocent. The “Group of 88” has been a wonderful collection of cutouts to rain darts on. I don’t say that to drum up sympathy or forgiveness for them. What I do want to suggest is that its foolish to expect cardboard cutouts to have much to say for themselves.

  7. Ken Duke | December 16, 2007 at 10:19 | Permalink

    Dear Professor Zimmerman:

    Re “What I do want to suggest is that its foolish to expect cardboard cutouts to have much to say for themselves.”

    I don’t know about that. The “fabulous lies” speech that Dave Evans gave in front of the jail before he turned himself in is widely regarded as having turned the tide in the case. The world saw that he was not a cardboard cutout, but was a human being who might just be innocent of the all the charges that had been hurled at him and his teammates.

    Suppose I am a doctor, and I have been told that a patient at the hospital needs my help. If, on the way, I accidentally run a stop sign and injure another person, I think it would be a good idea to apologize to that other person.

    I don’t for a minute think that the endorsers are all bad, or even mostly bad. I know a couple of them personally and will attest that they are nice people. However, I do believe that the endorsers, and others who kept up the prosecution drumbeat, ran a metaphorical stop sign on their way to help someone they thought needed their help. By running that stop sign, they harmed several other people. Why they can’t just end all the drama and apologize for that mistake is a mystery to me.

    Ken Duke

    PS — That is pretty remarkable that we both used the same “cutout” metaphor. I promise I didn’t plagiarize!

    ~   ~   ~

    Why no apology? I could speculate, but that’s all it would be. Maybe I will at some point, but I’m not feeling that masochistic at the moment. One way or the other, your comments are helpful in framing the issue, and I appreciate them.

  8. Sebastian | May 12, 2008 at 13:56 | Permalink

    I know this is a bit late, but since you requested comments from crookedtimber:

    The central message of the ad as I see it doesn’t need a reference to protestors and doesn’t require the rape allegation to be true, so I don’t think either line is necessary as written. The mention of protestors seems especially superfluous, and it’s on that point that I’m most sympathetic to the criticism of the ad—it’s hard to reconcile the blanket endorsement of protestors followed by a long list of faculty signatures with the crowd on the sidewalk at Buchanan Blvd. holding a banner that says “Castrate” and hounding out the lacrosse team as rapists. I find it odd and disappointing that those who signed the ad and continued to speak out and editorialize didn’t meet the issue head on.

    The problem I have with your reading of the listening statement is that it wants to discount the two areas of the statement where people typically put the most important thoughts—the introduction and the conclusion.

    The introduction assumes the rape to be true and thus sets the tone for how the rest of the statement is intended to be interpreted.

    The conclusion offers support for the protestors—summing up the argument of the rest of the statement.

    Why do you think it is appropriate to construct a reading of the document which pre-emptively trivializes parts which are found in what are normally the most important sections of such statements?

    Whatever you think of Dr. Johnson’s project as a whole, it seems to me that his reading doesn’t have to trivialize the tone and tenor of the listening statement in order to get to his reading.

    ~   ~   ~

    It’s not a term paper, it’s an ad, and it seems to me that you’re trivializing all but the last sentence of what you call the introduction as well as the text that’s highlighted by the design and typography. Like it or not, this is how I understand the ad—unlike Johnson, I’ve never claimed to offer an absolute and definitive reading. But if you want to see a detailed justification of the way I see it, more or less, take a look at Brian Leiter’s analysis.

  9. Sebastian | May 13, 2008 at 12:05 | Permalink

    “It’s not a term paper, it’s an ad”

    Exactly, which is why it is even more traditional to highlight the beginning and end—it is well understood that most people take away only the beginning and end of ads and that the middle of them is just to get you to hang on until the end.

    Now it may be that the professors don’t understand the basics of such things, I guess I can’t speak for their abilities beyond their core areas of presumed competence. And for people so deeply concerned about social context, it would be nice if they would apply that to an understanding of their own actions.

    They were injecting themselves into a situation which had already been politically charged by protestors who clearly were presuming guilt.

    If they had wanted to distance themselves from that, they could have.

    If they wanted to make clear that they were reserving judgment on the case at hand, they could have said something specific about the the presumption of innocence. Instead they made comments “Regardless of the results of the police investigation” which if you know anything at all about the rape literature and the phrases used to discuss it in any of the social sciences is much more likely to be interpreted (and in fact much more likely to be meant to be received) as a suggestion that the allegations are true no matter what the investigation reveals than it is to be a neutral statement.

    This type of problem is found throughout your analysis. Certainly you understand that words have to be understood in context. Suggesting that “Regardless of the results of the police investigation” has as a possible meaning of “reserving judgment on the outcome of the case” is ignoring the specific social context of the statement. Even without the context it is at best a 50/50 shot, but with the context the meaning is clearly not to be interpreted in favor of the presumption of innocence.

    In the part of your piece that I quote, you express confusion about why the problem of being linked to the protestors isn’t dealt with in the statement or by the faculty involved at the time immediately after the statement came out.

    Here it looks like you are letting your conclusion interfere with your analysis. If it were true that the statement was designed to be an even-handed look at the issues surrounding the whole incident I would be confused too. But you don’t seem open to the idea that the reason the signers of the ad don’t seem concerned by the problems you see in linking to the protestors (with the context being that the only protestors around were the presumption of guilt protestors) is that the authors of the ad and the supporters of the ad did not at the time read the ad as largely an even-handed raising of issues.

    If it isn’t in fact an even-handed raising of issues, and if the ads designers and most of its signers didn’t think of it as such, there really is no problem to be solved. The problem exists only becuase of your reading. If you read it as expressing support for the presumption of guilt there is no problem.

    The middle of the text expresses neutral-seeming raising of issues. The beginning and end don’t. I would be surprised if you have never experienced situations in the academic world where attacks are disguised as ‘raising of issues’. It isn’t fair to automatically assume that ‘raising of issues’ is an attack, but you have to look at the totality of the situation. In this particular case we have a beginning and end which suggests that the raising of issues might be no more than facially neutral. We have a context which suggests that it might only be facially neutral. We have problems (which you note) that only exist in a facially neutral reading, but not in a veiled-attack reading. That strongly suggests that a true neutrality-on-the-issue-of-guilt reading isn’t correct.

    This is furthered by the comment from Wahneema Lubiano, who drafted the ad, and writes in the email solicitation “African & African-American Studies is placing an ad in The Chronicle about the lacrosse team incident.” Leiter dismisses this with “It is, to the put matter gently, an unsound hermeneutic principle to ascribe views to 88 people based on a statement in an e-mail by one person that contradicts the explicit text of the ad the rest of them signed. “

    But first, this is the author of the ad. Second this is the missive going from the author of the ad to the signers of the ad. It is possible that the 88 signers disagreed with the author of the ad, but that email, circulated with the ad text itself, is certainly evidence that the reading of the ad as deeply about the lacrosse team incident is more plausible than the reading that it isn’t.

    And as we are discussing now, framing Wahneema Lubiano’s comments as ‘contradicts the explicit text’ is overdrawing the conclusion about what the ad means and deliberatly ignoring evidence about how it was understood right before and after publishing.

    ~   ~   ~

    Snore. This should go on the extras page with the other absolutists, but this thread is probably dead so I’ll leave it.