Laughing About Rape
Today in the paper there is a staff editorial about this incident in which the opinion editor at Connecticut State University published an ill-considered bit of satire about rape.
You can read the article in all its sophopmoric (lack of) glory here(pdf - page 7). On the whole, it's just what you'd expect - some unfunny undergraduate shock-jocking in a blatant attention grab. Nothing we don't see daily in the IDS columns. The ONLY thing in the whole world that distinguishes this one from every other bit of student newspaper opinion writing is that it managed to actually elicit a reaction. It didn't get the IDS Editorial Staff's knickers in a twist for nuthin'!
So what's so awful about this that IDS feels the need to register an opinion? Apparently, rape is "off limits" for satire. They give two plausible reasons.
First, university newspapers are open publications and have to be sensitive to the feelings of their audience. It's one thing to make light of taboo subjects as a comedian in a closed venue. In an open publication, we have to be more careful.
OK - I'll buy that one.
Second, comedy about taboo subjects can only ever be funny/liberating if it comes from the victims. This, in other words, is why we need a black man like Dave Chappelle to actually deliver the jokes that his white, jewish writer comes up with. Making fun of blacks is funny when blacks do it, offensive when whites do it.
Fine - that's true enough. Probably as a society we need to do a little soul-searching here (as in, why CAN'T whites make fun of blacks? Blacks make fun of whites after all...) - but I can't really argue with the truth of the assertion. For whatever reason, it IS easier to relax and enjoy when it's not a member of the former oppressor group doing the joking.
All the same, I'm not sure I agree that rape per se should be off limits to satire.
Consider this line from the article linked above:
"Rape is a profound violation of body and spirit, and to make light of this, even in satire, is abhorrent,'' Miller said.
Weeeeelllll, sure. But c'mon - a good bit of what we make fun of is no different. I think of that brilliant scene in Pulp Fiction where they blow their kidnap victim's head off by accident while debating the spiritual merits of eating pork. That's a funny scene - and yet there's nothing funny about murder. ESPECIALLY not this kind of casual murder! I think it would be fair to say that blowing someone's head off is a "profound violation of body and spirit." And yet, laughing at murder isn't off limits. Neither, for that matter, is laughing at theft, infidelity, beating the shit out of someone (think Nordberg in the Naked Gun movies), stupidity, drug addiction, lying pathologically, retarted people, etc. etc. etc. In fact, when you think about it (and please don't do it often!), most comedy is offensive. I guess Garrison Keilor would qualify as non-offensive comedy, but is he funny? Not to me.
So sure, IDS is not wrong about its two main arguments. What it IS wrong about is that rape deserves some kind of special status in the ranks of taboo subjects. It does not.
Let me give a more serious example. About a year after I moved to Japan I read Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking - a book that recounts the Nanking Massacre - one of the more brutal examples of Japan's notoriously barbaric behavior in WWII. It's a horrific book to read. I read it out of fascination with Japan's utter inability to deal with its past. It was available for sale in English only in Japan at the time. The Japanese publisher refused to print it - and at the time I bought it, there was already a "refutation" in Japanese of the book that had yet to see publication. (Anyone who thinks Japan is not a police state...) Chang's book itself probably the best-documented account of the largely-ignored incident, drawing, as it does, heavily on the diaries of Nazi observers. Of course, it's controversial. Chang is a Chinese-American, and I think charges that she exaggerates her interpretation and generally toes the Chinese party line are not unfounded. (But let me not be misunderstood - it's a good book, and the real culprits on this subject are the Japanese, who are not to be trusted on ANY aspect of their war-era history.)
My point, though, is that what happened at Nanking was a massacre. So why is only "rape" in the title? The Japanese Army managed to kill several hundred thousand people in the space of months - which should be shocking enough. How to make it even more shocking? Mention rape, of course. Somehow that's worse.
But see - that's just it. I don't get why? It's not as though we're talking a clash of armies here. The Nationalists abandoned the city and indeed ordered it evacuated ahead of the Japanese invasion. So all the victims at Nanking were defenseless civilians. And Japanese attrocities include all kinds of truly horrible things - like throwing babies up in the air and impaling them on bayonets, or tying people to posts for live target practice. Why does "rape" make the A-list into the title?
Well, partly because it's a compact word I guess. "Baby-impalers" sounds gothic or something.
But more, I think, because it somehow does enjoy special taboo status. Somehow, we've got it into our collective heads that rape is worse than impaling babies or using people for live target practice. It's the big hairy daddy of all bad crimes.
So this particular undergraduate wannabe shock-jock just happened to read the culture a little better than the others. He knows what the entire collection of IDS columnists do not: that homosexuality, criticizing the president, admitting to recreational drug use - these things aren't really shocking. Rape is. REALLY shocking. For some reason...
IDS does make one point worth thinking about:
But rape victims? There's certainly not an open community of them, as there is of any given race. There's no communal bonding ground. The point is that, when executed by the right individuals, society has advanced to a point where humor can be found about racism, even on a mainstream level. Rape? There's just nothing there to laugh at.
I mean, I guess on one level this is a pretty moronic thing to say. Racist humor isn't the same as "rape humor" (alright, I guess there is no "rape humor" just yet - but there will be) at all, and Petroski certainly wasn't making fun of rape victims. On another level, though, I see the point. There aren't (many) self-identified rape victims, and if they don't feel comfortable talking about their experiences in public yet, then probably we shouldn't feel too comfortable joking about them.
Still, I can't help but see this as part of a vicious cycle. The main reason rape victims don't feel comfortable talking about their experiences (I suspect) is because society isn't comfortable with rape victims. And the fact that society isn't comfortable with rape victims in some way empowers the rapist. It's been argued - completely plausibly, I think - that rape is more about power than sex. It isn't simply sexual gratification the perpetrator is after - what he's looking to do, in most cases, is "violate." And it's just that much more fun for him if the whole experience is deeply shameful for the victim.
Keeping this taboo in place, to put it bluntly, probably encourages more rapes than it prevents. Imagine a world in which we could joke about rape. Would that make rape more common, then? I suppose it might. But I find it easier to imagine it the other way around - that a world in which you could joke about rape would be a safer world for women - because it would take away a lot of the motivation for the crime in the first place.
Humor and satire are difficult things. I guess there was a time in recent American history when racist humor was used as an excuse for racism more than to point out the absurdity of racism. There's always a fine line there - and there is with rape humor too. There's a fine line between excusing the rapist and making him look absurd. Just like with racial humor, we'll have to be sensitive about how we go about this. And yes, IDS has a point that the first steps here should probably be taken by victims.
But I feel the need to point out that this is exactly what humor is all about. It identifies points of tension and applies pressure on them - not unlike a massage. No pain no gain. So on the whole I think it's out of place for the IDS, or anyone, to talk about rape as though it's off limits to joking. It isn't - or at least, it shouldn't be. Getting unduly offended by the very mention of rape is the other - and equally psychotic - side of the same sick coin. The one isn't there without the other. Keeping the taboo in place isn't helping anyone.
As for Mr. Petroski's column - a simple read-through should be enough to make this point. It just isn't the kind of thing that deserves this amount of attention. Petroski's writing simply isn't good enough, penetrating enough, or insightful enough to have gotten everyone's feathers in such a ruff. This is what you might call masturbatory indignation. The people sounding off here are people who do it on command - not because they were actually provoked. At least, I find that explanation a lot more plausible than that this generally second-rate bit of writing could have drummed them all up on its merits. "Rape" as a word these days is like one of those horror films that has to resort to gore and people jumping out of closets to get to its audience because the subject matter just isn't fundamentally scary. More powerful than the n-bomb, I'm afraid.
Ah, but why? I'm not really sure. But I guess it has to do with getting us into some uncomfortable territory on the "sex war" front that we're not quite ready to deal with yet. If so, then the real irony here is that it isn't IDS that's being progressive by sympathizing with the victims - it's Petroski for writing his column in the first place. Not sure I want to give him personal credit for brilliance (since he doesn't seem to possess any) - so let's just say I'm glad he wrote it and leave it at that.