David Brooks’ op/ed has me quite literally shaking with rage. I don’t have TimesSelect, but Amanda kindly forwarded it to me, and posted her own thoughts. Now, paragraph by paragraph:
All great scandals occur twice, first as Tom Wolfe novels, then as real-life events that nightmarishly mimic them. And so after “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” it was perhaps inevitable that Duke University would have to endure a mini-social explosion involving athletic thugs, resentful townies, nervous administrators, male predators, aggrieved professors, binge drinking and lust gone wild.
Ignoring the fact that “I Am Charlotte Simmons” sucked, let’s take a second to point it out one more time: Rape is not about “lust gone wild.” It is not about “lust” any more than fantasizing about killing someone and skinning them is about “lust.” It’s about violence, power and depravity. Not sexual attractiveness. Not the inability to control your hormones.
If you wander through the thicket of commentary that already surrounds the Duke lacrosse scandal, the first thing you notice is how sociological it is. In almost every article and piece of commentary, the event is portrayed not as a crime between individuals but as a clash between classes, races and sexes.
Perhaps because the men were yelling racist epithets at the strippers? Perhaps because, by nearly all accounts, there have been serious issues with race, class and sex at Duke, and in Duke’s relations with Durham?
“This whole sordid party scene played out at the prestigious university is deeply disturbing on a number of levels, including those involving gender, race and the notion of athletic entitlement and privilege,” a USA Today columnist wrote.
“The collisions are epic: black and white, town and gown, rich and poor, privilege and plain, jocks and scholars,” a CBS analyst observed.
The key word in the coverage has been “entitlement.” In a thousand different ways commentators have asserted (based on no knowledge of the people involved) that the lacrosse players behaved rancidly because they felt privileged and entitled to act as they pleased.
The main theme shaping the coverage is that inequality leads to exploitation. The whites felt free to exploit the blacks. The men felt free to exploit women. The jocks felt free to exploit everybody else. As a Duke professor, Houston Baker, wrote, their environment gave the lacrosse players “license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech and feel proud of themselves in the bargain.”
It could be that this environmental, sociological explanation of events is entirely accurate. But it says something about our current intellectual climate that almost every reporter and commentator used these mental categories so unconsciously and automatically.
Well, that is what happens in a post-Civil-Rights-era world (to be clear, that isn’t to imply that the goals of the Civil Rights movement are over): we have a heightened sensitivity to issues of race, gender and class. Certainly this sensitivity isn’t heightened enough, and there is still a long way to go. But the idea that all crimes are simply acts against “individuals” and never motivated by other social forces has been thoroughly de-bunked. We’ve recognized that whites do exploit blacks, men do exploit women, etc etc.
But that doesn’t stop Brooks!
Several decades ago, American commentators would have used an entirely different vocabulary to grapple with what happened at Duke. Instead of the vocabulary of sociology, they would have used the language of morality and character.
If you were looking at this scandal through that language, you would look at the e-mail message one of the players sent on the night in question. This is the one in which a young man joked about killing strippers and cutting off their skin.
You would say that the person who felt free to send this message to his buddies had crashed through several moral guardrails. You would surmise that his character had been corroded by shock jocks and raunch culture and that he’d entered a nihilistic moral universe where young men entertain each other with bravura displays of immoralism. A community so degraded, you might surmise, is not a long way from actual sexual assault.
You would then ask questions very different from the sociological ones: How have these young men slipped into depravity? Why have they not developed sufficient character to restrain their baser impulses?
Well, I think people are asking those questions, aren’t they? They’re answering, “Extreme privilege.” “Racism.” “A life where there were never any consequences.” Etc etc.
Further, not raping isn’t about an ability to “restrain their baser impulses.” It’s sort of like not murdering, or not going around and physically assaulting people. There is not an inborn male desire to rape. Brooks’ idea that men don’t rape because they exhibit “restraint” is indeed frightening. It reflects a pretty dim view of men, and it makes me pretty uncomfortable when I think that he must, at least in part, be basing this on his own views.
But the problem with Brooks’ positioning of this issue is that he assumes this problem to be an individual one. It’s not. Sexual assault is nothing less than an epidemic. Gang rapes in particular are worth examining sociologically, because many times at least some of the men involved would probably not commit rape on their own. There’s obviously a lot more going on here than just an individual issue.
The educators who used this vocabulary several decades ago understood that when you concentrate young men, they have a tropism toward barbarism. That’s why these educators cared less about academics than about instilling a formula for character building. The formula, then called chivalry, consisted first of manners, habits and self-imposed restraints to prevent the downward slide.
Jeez. Remember what I just wrote about Brooks having a pretty dim view of men? Double that.
When you put a bunch of guys together, they tend toward barbarism? Seriously, David? And they say feminists hate men.
As for the last part of that paragraph, what? Apparently a few decades ago, college was charm school for boys. Academics were secondary; teaching little Charles Anderson Crawford III how to open doors was priority numero uno.
Nevermind, of course, that this is totally at odds with reality and history.
Furthermore, it was believed that each of us had a godlike and a demonic side, and that decent people perpetually strengthened the muscles of their virtuous side in order to restrain the deathless sinner within. If you read commencement addresses from, say, the 1920’s, you can actually see college presidents exhorting their students to battle the beast within — a sentiment that if uttered by a contemporary administrator would cause the audience to gape and the earth to fall off its axis.
Well… yeah. Because a hundred more years of moral philosophy, sociology and anthroplogy has shown us that there’s a lot more to moral decision-making than an internal binary battle of good v. evil.
Today that old code of obsolete chivalry is gone, as is a whole vocabulary on how young people should think about character.
The vocabulary of good versus evil is gone? Someone give that memo to our President.
As for this idea that eliminating chivalry causes rape, again I call bullshit. First: Chivalry isn’t dead. Second: Rape existed in 1920, too, and apparently that was the height of chivalrous behavior. Third: Men don’t rape because they haven’t been taught about “character” or “chivalry.” Would anyone look at Ted Bundy, shake their heads and say, “Well, it’s really too bad that he was brought up in a society where moral character wasn’t emphasized enough. If only he was more chivalrous, maybe he wouldn’t have killed all those women.” Of course not. Chivalry doesn’t protect women from victimization at the hands of violent people. Chivalry doesn’t keep otherwise violent men from behaving violently. But Brooks seems to believe that all men are innately violent and have a deep-seated desire to harm women, which can only be quelled by demanding that they pull out our chairs for us.
But in “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” Wolfe tried to steer readers back past the identity groups to the ghost in the machine, the individual soul. Wolfe’s heroine is a modern girl searching for honor in a world where the social rules have dissolved, and who commits “moral suicide” because she is unprepared for what she faces.
Many critics reacted furiously to these parts of Wolfe’s book. And we are where we are.
So we know he has crappy taste in books. But let’s look at what else he’s saying here: “Wolfe’s heroine is a modern girl searching for honor in a world where the social rules have dissolved.” Does anyone actually believe that the social rules — like don’t fucking rape people — have dissolved? Really?
Now I suppose feminism is to blame for this, because the demise of chivalry is probably our fault, and without chivalry men will run around raping and killing and skinning strippers and doing God knows what else because they’re ignorant, evil beasts who need a great deal of social control to keep them moderately well-behaved.
But I don’t really buy that. See, I don’t think that the expectation that men will behave like normal human beings is really setting the bar that high. I don’t think men are inherently “bad” and therefore unable to not commit violent crimes without coercive social forces pushing them in the other direction. And I don’t think that men need to position women as secondary in order to not physically harm them.
This is where the real cognitive dissonance comes in: Brooks basically argues that chivalry is necessary for male character development, ostensibily because an ideology which positions men as the big strong protectors of women will keep those same men from physically harming the women they’ve been sent to protect. Of course, this raises questions of who they’re protecting those women from, given that chivalry is supposed to make all men “good.” If chivalry worked, there wouldn’t be any need for chivalry, right?
His analysis also completely ignores basic power structures. Give men more power over women through chivalry, he argues, and they will rape them less. This ignores, again, the fact that rape is very much a crime of power and control, and the very reason that men rape women is because they can — because women are the “weaker” sex, and rape keeps them in their place.
Now, I suppose that “chivalry,” in Brooks’ view, is actually a white upper-class male concept, and the chivalrous men are the same ones who have always had access to wealth and higher education (hence the line about how back in the good old days, colleges were focused on morality and character). So the chivalrous men are actually there to protect similarly-situated white women from the menace of poor and black non-chivalrous men. Which is why this whole “the boys lacked chivalry” argument is particularly applicable here, as opposed to, say, the Kobe Bryant rape case. Consider if David Brooks had written this same editorial then; how much sense would it really have made in that context? Could it even have been written?
His point, then, is that we should remove “identity politics” from our discussion of the Duke rape case, but then he launches into an argument that can only be made when we’re talking about a particular, privileged identity. He continues to assert that men will not rape (or rape less) if they’re given more power over women, ignoring the fact that these boys’ power was what enabled and encouraged them to rape in the first place.
Talk about extreme illogic. The whole thing has my head spinning.