After a few months of dealing with unfinished business, I’ve managed to put together a two-sides-of-the-coin analysis of the Duke lacrosse case that’s been on my mind for a while. For better or worse, the lacrosse case has been a blogger’s boon, and while I was taking stock of my time at Duke anyway I thought I better do my part.
Although I’m a low-level member of the Duke faculty still for at least one more semester, I’m writing more from an outside than the inside perspective. I was part-time and “visiting” for most of my nine years at Duke, and I taught my last class (or so I thought) and moved out of my office at the end of this past spring semester. I haven’t been involved in any faculty or institutional response or discussion of the case, and none of the people at Duke who have played a public role in the controversies are friends or acquaintances of mine. All that makes it relatively easy to express myself frankly, but also means that I couldn’t, even if I wanted to, speak for the university, its administration, or any other member of the faculty. Any interpretations I offer are my own—I’m not in a position to defend the statements or actions that anyone else has made about the lacrosse case, and I’m not offering any such defenses.
I find looking back at the spring semester 2006 through the lens of the lacrosse case to be a little surreal, since the unfolding scandal left almost no impression on my own experience teaching a small and congenial class two afternoons a week. I had a deadline looming at the time and was only sporadically following developments in the news. I can’t say anything firsthand about the major incidents and events—protests and “wanted” posters and the like—except to make the obvious point that they weren’t ubiquitous. It’s a reminder of how selective and unrepresentative a picture of life on campus you get from the assembled highlights of the controversy—one of the things that doesn’t register is how much of it was boringly normal.
What’s on my mind isn’t so much the incident and legal proceedings as the remarkably polarizing and dysfunctional dialogue the case has spawned. The long letter Duke Provost Peter Lange sent to the faculty last January gives a pretty good idea of how it looked from the eye of the hurricane. The letter is so even-handed and deliberative that it’s hard to tell what’s the statement and what’s the statement about making a statement—it’s the antithesis of the quick and dirty texts “intended not to clarify but to embarrass, punish, demean or humiliate” that Lange was writing about. A fine model for a more illuminating discourse, but I don’t see any signs that either form or content made an impression. It is a little odd to read his carefully considered back-and-forth touching on language, rhetoric, debate, democracy, the technology of communication, etc.—all core academic issues—and then get to the part about the challenge ahead for Duke, which is… campus culture. Nothing is more fundamental to a liberal education than effective and responsible use of words, and surely there’s an academic agenda along those lines that can compliment whatever’s been decided about housing, drinking, and athletics. I’m not that tuned in to what’s happening on campus, though, so maybe it’s been press-released and Chronicled and I missed it.
The picture Lange paints is of extremist rhetoric silencing those who don’t want to be pummeled and pulling the rest toward the fringes. That fits with my impression that zealots have set both the terms and the tone of the discussion, kept it stoked with resentment, and whittled it down to stick figures and false choices. As a way to look at the mechanics behind all this, I’ve picked out two parties to the war of words, one collective and the other individual. Representing one side, the “potbangers“—activists who rallied on March 26, 2006 to denounce the lacrosse team at the site of their disastrous party on Buchanan Blvd. For the other side, KC Johnson, a professor at Brooklyn College and outspoken critic of critics of the lacrosse team, who blogs on Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW). Neither stands alone—I’m not claiming that either is single-handedly responsible for the way things have turned out. In the first few weeks after the news broke there were a number of rallies condemning the team’s actions and highlighting the issues of sexual assault and racism, some on campus and some off, and there were similar messages in the media and elsewhere. The potbanging protest left an especially deep impression on all that followed, though. And there are several other blogs and web sites dedicated to exposing the terrible injustice they believe has been done to the team. DIW seems to me the most influential and insidiously polarizing of them. Liestoppers is the grassroots hub of the network, though, and for my own convenience I’m going to refer to the community as a whole as “liestoppers.”
To some extent DIW and the potbanging protestors is an arbitrary pairing I’ve settled on by indulging the bad habit—one I share with most everyone else who commentates about the case—of writing first and foremost about the things that piss me off. Despite all sorts of differences, though, what the pair has in common (treating the protestors as a single perspective) is significant. Both were galvanized by an act they saw as despicable, and so blatantly true to type for the people who committed it that it was also a perfect scourge. Diametrically opposite the bad guys are some good guys, and the portrayals of both sides of the face-off are predictably skewed. The compromises that come from letting ends justify means are clear in both cases. The protestors, who I believe consider non-violence and compassion to be foundation principles, nonetheless took up intimidation and the suggestion of violence. The scathing critique of members of the Duke faculty on DIW trades on Johnson’s credibility as a professor and gives an impression of offended rationality but the core of it is both irrational and anti-academic. Other than the last few details, it’s the same old, same old of polemics and ideological crusades.
The “listening” statement—an advertisement placed in the Duke Chronicle on April 6, 2006 and endorsed by 88 people, mostly Duke faculty members—figures in both halves of the critique. It’s a document that might have been no more than a blip if it hadn’t been picked up by Johnson (it’s what focussed his attention on the case) and other bloggers. The way Johnson has been able to reduce the ad to exactly what’s useful to him is a good example of how the range of the conversation can be narrowed by a strident, polarizing voice. What I find especially interesting is the link between the “listening” statement and the potbanging protest, something Johnson has been able to exploit to great effect in spite of efforts when the ad was written to make much different points in a much different way than the protestors.
The issues raised by the ad and the minority students it represented didn’t deserve to be treated as special interests in a zero-sum game, and tempting as it is to think so, it wasn’t only the efforts of the ad’s critics that landed them there. The potbangers slotted the case into the frame of generalized Oppression, loading it down with moral clarity that obscured the particulars of the case. Other voices—professors, editorialists, pundits, etc.—pronounced the same black-and-white antithesis between the lacrosse team and the interests of women and minorities (and all decent, thinking people, of course). Following a time-tested script, the liestoppers fought back by turning the protestors’ perspective on its head while continuing to sing the same songs of victimization and prejudice, now in the circumscribed context of freakish outrages (which includes the Tawana Brawley scandal and I’m not sure what else).
It’s a narrow perspective that overcompensates with grandiose gestures of righteousness. One of my favorites is the name of the legal defense fund set up for the players, a perfectly reasonable cause that didn’t need the pretense—the Association for Truth and Fairness. Although it’s a brittle construct that requires blinders and constant vociferous defense, as a platform for defending the status quo it’s hard to do better than an understanding of Truth, Fairness, and Justice that hinges on the rare but spectacular victimization of society’s least vulnerable. And it’s a fine basis for drawing conclusions from the case about Duke or Durham or society in general without worrying about whether or not the players represent the kind of Duke students likely to be undermined or alienated by prejudice, or the kind of people likely to be victimized by the sex industry or to suffer from the whims of the justice system, among other things. On that last point Reade Seligmann was able to introduce a welcome dose of reality, and it’s not my claim that identifying strongly with the lacrosse players as victims of injustice—the basic motivation of liestoppers, I think—is incompatible with understanding and sympathy for other perspectives. But a point of view based on outrage, especially one as precarious as this, is driven to justify itself with rhetorical warfare that brings the battle lines into sharp relief. The easiest way to do that—standard practice on DIW—is to package the people in the line of fire into special interests to be attacked, dismissed or defended, and pretend nobody else exists.
For background on the case—if you just found your way to my blog from Mars or something—a good place to go is the Duke Chronicle’s Lacrosse scandal page. There is a small collection of articles about the “listening” statement and the 88 who signed it, including a link to the ad itself and an especially good account of the ad and it’s repercussions by Steve Veres. Duke News and Communication has a page with links to various press releases and reports. Finally, this past April Newsweek had a good retrospective on the scandal.