Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Unknown Structures

All manner of commentators—from Turner’s friend, who chalked up the assault to “clouded judgement” on both [Chanel] Miller and [Brock] Turner’s part, to Malcolm Gladwell, who devoted a chapter in his most recent book to raising doubts about Turner’s culpability—stepped in to share their theories about Turner’s intent and Miller’s desires.
Christina Cauterucci "Why Not Go to the Police?"
I happen to have a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's "most recent book," otherwise known as Talking to Strangers, and, last night, I read the chapter "devoted [...] to raising doubts about Turner's culpability." It's Chapter Eight, "Case Study: The Fraternity Party." It's the last of three chapters that Mr. Gladwell devotes to the ways in which we think that we understand other people, and get it wrong, because we mistakenly think that people are more transparent than they actually are. Brock Turner's rape of Chanel Miller is the backdrop for a quick consideration of consent and then a much larger consideration of alcohol, two factors that, in Mr. Gladwell's telling, result in many of the countless encounters between people at parties going badly awry.

I'd read "Case Study: The Fraternity Party," prepared for the possibility of being disappointed with Mr. Gladwell's analysis. But in the end, it was Ms. Cauterucci's analysis that seemed lacking. There was nothing in the book that was particularly sympathetic to Brock Turner, other than perhaps the acknowledgement that expecting a drunken teenager to correctly read another human being is a bad idea. But what that does is cast Mr. Turner as something other than a deliberate predator, someone who set out to victimize someone that evening, with alcohol as an accomplice.

But when I considered the podcast that Ms. Cauterucci linked to, I saw the basis for her disdain.
By the end of the chapter, Gladwell is arguing that sexual assaults can be basically boiled down to a misunderstanding - a misreading of signals, often between two people too drunk to know what’s really going on.
While I understand the upset, I didn't read it this way. Rather, I felt that the point that he made at the beginning of the chapter was that a misreading of signals between two people too drunk to know what’s really going on often resulted in sexual assaults. The two statements are not equivalent.

The disconnect, however, speaks to differences in the way people see the world, and the differences between the law and the court of public opinion. As a matter of law, rape is sexual contact without consent. And the reasons for that lack of consent go beyond simple unwillingness. "Under California law," Talking to Strangers tells us, "Someone is incapable of giving consent to sexual activity if they are either unconscious or so intoxicated that they are 'prevented from resisting'." But our understanding of "assault" doesn't really concern itself with matters of consent. Lack of consent is taken as a given. It's the perpetrator, and how they behave, that is front and center when the word "assault" is used.
The who of the Brock Turner case was never in doubt. The what was determined by the jury. But that still leaves the why. How did an apparently harmless encounter on a dance floor end in a crime.
This is the question that Mr. Gladwell sets out to answer. For me, as the reader, and I suspect for Mr. Gladwell, as the author, "the why" has no bearing on Brock Turner's culpability. He was caught in the act of sexual activity with someone who was unconscious and so intoxicated they were prevented from resisting. Enough said.

But for the cast of The Waves podcast and to Ms. Cauterucci, "the why" is manifestly important. Because that's where the structural issues that are important to them lie. And casting Brock Turner as simply a sexually aggressive teenager who drank his way into a criminal act sets aside those structural issues. Likewise, when Mr. Gladwell accurately points out that there is no way to know what happened between Brock Turner and Emily Doe/Chanel Miller during their encounter at the Kappa Alpha party, he's likely also thinking of it as unimportant. After all, it has no bearing on whether there was consent to sexual activity later; Emily Doe/Chanel Miller was legally unable to consent, and that was that.

But if you view the crime as a matter of respect or of structural sexism, then what happens is important. But who should it be important to? If I determine that Brock Turner is culpable even though he suffered from self-inflicted, alcohol-induced "clouded judgement" at the time, what does Chanel Miller lose? For me, the understanding that if Brock Turner had been sober, he may not have done what he did does nothing to invalidate any of the criticisms that she made of him or any of the impacts that the assault had on her.

I understand that there is an argument that Chanel Miller does lose something, and that something is invalidated, but I can't access what it is, and so I can't adequately respond. Nor can I really adjust my thinking. I could simply parrot the lines I think are expected of me, but that would be parroting; repeating without genuine comprehension. And, oddly, that seems to be the point behind Talking to Strangers; that there are so many things about other people that we don't know, and maybe can't know, that we have to be wary of thinking that we know them.

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