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Opinion: Aggravated Assault

Poli Psy


Published March 16, 2011 at 5:23 a.m.


I just read a study about why it’s almost impossible for anyone who isn’t the victim of torture to determine what torture is. The authors point out that torture is defined by the severity of the physical or mental pain it inflicts. But the people who make that judgment are rarely the ones who are tortured.

The result: They underestimate the suffering and don’t call torture torture.

Psychological research shows that we can’t appreciate any affective state — desire, fatigue, pain — if we’re not experiencing it. For instance, Donald Rumsfeld’s notes on a Pentagon memo regarding “stress positions” during the Bush administration’s discussion of the legality of “enhanced interrogation techniques”: “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?”

This phenomenon is called the “empathy gap,” and it has been on stark display in recent days. It is obvious that many people, men especially, do not get it that rape is a species of torture — terrifying, painful and humiliating.

They can’t even understand this when the victim is 11 years old and her victimizers number 18 or more.

I’m talking about the appalling response to the gang rape of a middle-school girl in Cleveland, Texas — most notably, the New York Times story by James C. McKinley Jr. In that piece, the reporter blamed the victim and her mother, noting that “residents ... said [the child] dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s,” and quoting one neighbor who wondered, “Where was her mother?”

McKinley also quoted community members worrying about the trauma the perpetrators might endure. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives,” said one. The writer couldn’t scare up a single informant to speak sympathetically about the victim.

When outrage erupted — instantly, across the feminist blogosphere — the Times was unapologetic. “Those are views we found in our reporting,” a spokeswoman explained. “They are not our reporter’s reactions, but the reactions of disbelief by townspeople over the news of a mass assault on a defenseless 11-year-old.” As if the “newspaper of record” doesn’t select its quotes or tell reporters to do some more digging.

The Cleveland criminal justice community was equally clueless, even merciless. The police chief could not fathom why the girl waited three months to come forward. The attorney for several of the accused could think of no better defense strategy than the old “she asked for it.” On NBC TV — the attorney’s eyes straying from the interviewer’s, his lips suppressing what looked like a smile — he called the victim “a willing participant.”

These men are already proving what the girl must have sensed: that disclosing a rape leads first to humiliation of the victim. As for punishment of the perpetrators, we’ll see how this one turns out, but rape convictions are rare.

This empathy gap is so wide you can barely see across it.

Not everyone who got it wrong is male. The Houston Chronicle’s Cindy Horswell, to her credit, interviewed the girl’s mother, who cried, saying her daughter still liked stuffed bears. Horswell managed to find sympathy for the victim that the Times couldn’t unearth. On the other hand, Horswell combed the child’s Facebook page for signs of mental disturbance, as if that explained anything. And, interviewed on CNN, she felt it important to mention the school basketball team’s declining performance, now that a few players have been benched due to gang-rape allegations.

Meanwhile, the critics of the coverage have been overwhelmingly female — and feminist.

The authors of the study on torture conclude that the only way to deal with the empathy gap is to ignore it; define torture broadly, beyond what may feel appropriate. We can’t trust our emotions on this, a researcher told me. We have to use our intellects.

Maybe it’s time to stop waiting for popular empathy about rape. If men — if anyone — can feel it in their viscera, great. If not, let them use their heads. These are the facts: Nothing justifies rape. Rape victims are never at fault.

The feminist activist Shelby Knox started an online petition to the Times demanding an apology. After nearly 40,000 signitures — which also went to the Times as emails — the paper’s public editor, Arthur Brisbane, conceded in his online column that “the outrage is understandable,” and that the story “lacked balance.”

Finally, some ironies deserve mention. Texas lists 63,000 people on its sex-offender registries and adds about 100 a week. An untold number (Texan sources believe it is a large number) of these are young adults and teenagers who have had consensual sex with other teens. The same is true throughout the nation.

Yet, when a child — did I mention she is a poor, Hispanic child? — is gang raped, neighbors, lawyers and reporters can’t shake the nagging feeling that she, or maybe her mother, caused it to happen.

Texas is also one of only four states that require parental consent — not just notification — for abortion; it allows no exception for abuse, assault, incest or neglect. The rape victim who gets pregnant is held responsible for the consequences. In practice, that’s not so far from holding her responsible for the assault. Talk about living with something for the rest of your life.

It appears that many Americans, or Texans, anyway, are more upset by adolescent lovemaking than they are by sexual violence.

One more irony: This story went national on March 8, the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day. From the White House, a beaming Michelle Obama proclaimed, “We’ve come a long way, ladies!”

Not long enough.

Here's a cite for the study: "Torture in the eyes of the beholder: the

psychological difficulty of defining torture in law and policy,"

Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, January, 2011, by Mary-Hunter

Morris McDonnell, Loran F. Nordgren, George Loewenstein. Another

version will soon be appearing in the Psychological Science journal.