Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Aristotle's Poetics and Rape Culture

 Plato 1, Aristotle nil

Principles of literary criticism are seldom visibly applicable to widely discussed current events, but the current discussion of “rape culture” at the University of Virginia obligates me to make one of my rare descents into the politico-cultural maelstrom.

            Most people know that Plato banished poets from his ideal republic.  They made things up.  Putting it another way, they were liars.  Ulysses didn’t really do all that stuff.  There is in fact in the Western cultural tradition a continuing strain, persistent if minor, of this kind of thinking.  But the doctrine seems grim, extreme, or simply wrong-headed to people who like stories.  Plato’s ace student Aristotle came up with an alternate theory that most English professors prefer as it keeps bread on their tables.  We must distinguish between literal or historical truth and moral truth.  Fiction can actually be truer than what we laughingly call reality.  Fiction should and can have pleasing artistic shape, harmony and economy of organization, and clarity of moral tendency—features often sadly lacking in real life.  Though King Lear never existed, an audience can grasp more eternal verities in watching three hours of Shakespeare than Lear himself was able to absorb in a long lifetime.

            Many of us carry around with us in our heads certain legendary or literary couples: Dick and Jane, Hansel and Gretel, Frankie and Johnny.  Jack and Jill grow up to be Darby and Joan, perhaps.  Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw grow up to be—well, they don’t exactly grow up.  As most readers of this blog surely know already, the new couple in town are Jackie and Drew, two undergraduates at the University of Virginia.  Drew arranged the mise en scène for seven guys to gang rape his date Jackie at his fraternity house.  That at least is the ballad of Jackie and Drew according to Jackie, according to Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a professional writer for Rolling Stone magazine.  Erdely’s article “A Rape on Campus” gained wide attention and triggered an outpouring of opinion about a supposed “rape culture” on college campuses.  It had an immediate chilling effect on Greek life in Charlottesville but a warming effect among MSNBC pundits. 

            The article caused such a ruckus, indeed, that a reporter on the higher education beat at the Washington Post, undertaking the story behind the story, so to speak, started doing some fact-checking.  Everybody already knew, and accepted, that Jackie and Drew were made up names.  But the first gestures of prudential research, with which neither Ms. Erdely nor her editors had bothered, soon suggested that a great deal else had been made up, including quite possibly the very existence of Drew and the alleged fact of a gang rape.  As reported by Ms. Erdely, Jackie’s tale is fantastic.  One claim is that some male friends and presumed comforters of Jackie encouraged her not to make a fuss about having been brutally gang-raped by seven violent criminals atop shards of broken glass lest it compromise their own hopes of rushing a fraternity.  Though Drew hasn’t shown up, the friends have, and they have been unable to recognize themselves in the published account.

Pitchforks and torches at the Phi Kappa Psi house

           A single instance of rape is one too many, but is there an epidemic of campus rape?  Is there a “rape culture” in many of our colleges and universities?  Is campus sexual assault as common as Joe Biden, among many others, claims?  I have to say I doubt it.   To be sure, my doubt is based not in statistical study but in mere personal experience.  I was for more than a decade the faculty master of an undergraduate residential college within Princeton University.  My principal job was to foster a wholesome symbiosis of students’ residential and classroom experiences.   I saw or became aware of a lot of undergraduate life up close.  On the whole I enjoyed those years immensely, but there were some seriously unpleasant episodes—including a probable rape. 

            Looking back at those years I come to some conclusions.   The first is that such episodes of sexual unpleasantness as appear on our college campuses—and they are many--differ in style rather than in substance from those in many parts of contemporary American society, which has indeed witnessed, during the comparatively brief span of my own lifetime, what is accurately called a “sexual revolution”, the contradictions of which are still far from resolved.  The second is that campus sexual incivility and violence are so frequently associated with alcohol abuse that in proposing “solutions” it is almost pedantic to separate the two.  My third conclusion is that charges of rape, as a serious felony long established by our criminal codes, ought to be treated with genuine as opposed to rhetorical seriousness.  That is, they should be investigated and prosecuted by the relevant police authorities and other professionals in the criminal justice system.  College discipline committees are no more competent to deal with rape than they are to adjudicate other violent criminal behavior such as armed robbery, kidnapping, or murder.

            The ballad of Jackie and Drew really need not be the stuff of ideological duels between television pundits.  Conservatives and Liberals do have some common ground, and I would have thought that one shared plank might be opposition to felony rape—on campus or off.  Furthermore I grant that fiction may well influence national social life for the better.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin unquestionably played a role in ending chattel slavery.  Perhaps a required reading of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons might have an analogous effect in reforming the sexual mores of select southern campuses.  Then again, probably not.  But though fiction may be exemplary, it squanders that possibility when it seriously claims to be fact.  It then becomes a mere fib or a hoax.  The strange ballad of Jackie and Drew was presented as exemplary fact by Ms. Erdely and published as fact by the editors of Rolling Stone.  It is these people, not their critics, who are trivializing rape.  For various reasons it is a less serious hoax than the infamous Duke Lacrosse fiasco of a few years ago, though it shares the central feature of an obscurely motivated false accusation easily credited by people who don’t like rich kids, jocks, frat boys, or some other group on the list of authorized stereotypes.  The relationships between young men and young women on our university campuses are unlikely always to be Platonic.  But discussion of them need not be so enthusiastically Aristotelian either.