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…