Christian's Chronicles

July| Vol. 22 No. 8.02 | Christian's Chronicles © 2015 – All rights reserved.

Pumped up kicks

The Chicago Tribune reports that three teens raped a 12 year old girl at gunpoint, then posted video of the assault on their Facebook pages. Wait, I forgot to say “allegedly…”

I am a fan of the concept of being innocent until proven guilty, so let’s not yet convict the suspects.  Recent events should serve as a reminder that sometimes it is best to take initial sensational reports with a grain of salt. The now convicted murderer Jodi Arias, as well as the 12 year old brother of the 8 year old girl killed in their Valley Springs, California home, initially made false reports blaming unknown attackers. With regard to the former, she admitted her lies and was convicted despite her claims of self defense; regarding the latter, supposed independent eyewitnesses have been discredited and the boy has been formerly charged with murder. Returning to the present case, here’s the Tribune’s account of what happened; allegedly.

The assault took place on December 15, at the home of one of the suspects. Presumably, the victim was acquainted with the suspect, and had gone to his house willingly, to talk with him. He had requested sex from the victim, which she refused, but then was nonetheless forced at gunpoint to perform various sex acts on the three suspects. The sex acts were videotaped, including one of the suspects holding a gun, and all three shouting gang slogans. “The day after the assaults, the girl told someone about the attacks, and a police report was made and the girl was treated and examined at a hospital. On Dec. 17, the video was posted on Brown’s Facebook page, and then on all three boys’ Facebook pages…Fritz admitted to investigators he made the tape, prosecutors said.” (quoting the Tribune)

Devil’s Advocate

Let’s accept the reported facts as true, for the time being, and see if we can nonetheless find an ‘innocent explanation.’ The first issue that should jump out at the reader is the date of the assault: December 15. Why did it take so long to charge the teens, if the assault was published on Facebook only two days thereafter? The above report states that the girl told ‘someone’ about the attacks the day after the incident (December 16), and in the same sentence claims that a police report was made. Was the report made on the 16th? It is not immediately clear, and it also isn’t clear when the victim was treated at the hospital. However, let’s assume that the report as well as the hospital treatment occurred on the 16th. The question remains, why wait such a long time to charge the suspects when they had posted incriminating video evidence of themselves engaged in perpetrating the crime?

Perhaps it is precisely because police are aware of the possibility of false reports, as indicated above. Often, it is easy to find scapegoats in persons viewed negatively by mainstream society, whom jurors are happy to convict. A recent case in point: the Central Park 5; black and Latino youths who were convicted and served nearly a decade in prison for the brutal rape and beating of a petite, white, Ivy-league educated victim who had been found left for dead with no memory of the incident, of which they were later exonerated by DNA evidence and the confession of a serial rapist. Let us also not forget the ugly history of lynching and other forms of injustice suffered by black men, often falsely accused of raping a white woman, which was more than enough to ignite the flames of bigotry and allow mobs to take ‘justice’ into their own hands.

So how could this report, even with video evidence depicting the crime and the suspects holding a gun, and the admission by one of the suspects of having made the video, nonetheless have an ‘innocent explanation?’

Maybe it’s just what the cool kids, with the pumped up kicks do. I’m using the lyrics (admittedly out of context) of a hit song by Foster the People to illustrate a point. It is obvious from the fact that the suspects posted the video on Facebook that they thought it would impress a certain audience. In other words, they thought ‘it’ was cool. The key question is – what is ‘it?’ Does the video depict an actual rape as it is being committed, or does it merely pretend to do so, in order to impress the intended audience? (Could that be the reason why one of the suspects admitted making it?) Either way, is there a bigger lesson to be learned here?

The Big Picture

We do not have all the facts, and no one can tell how the eventual trial will turn out. Questions of criminal culpability aside, if we look at society in general, perhaps we can identify some trends that may be even more disturbing than what happened in this particular case. This is not an isolated incident involving images of (alleged) rape shared for entertainment on social media. Recently, the Steubenville High School rape case involved perpetrators as well as others callously gloating over derogatory images and depictions of the victim in various social media networks. Prior to that, the brutal 2009 beating and gang rape of a white victim during the Richmond High School prom was witnessed and allegedly recorded by numerous bystanders, who not only failed to intervene, but reportedly saw it as humorous entertainment. The outrage that followed brought to light racial tensions, leaving some to speculate that the story may have received less attention in mainstream media than it did in the blogosphere, in order to diminish the possibility of vigilante justice; something that was discussed in some online circles. It was said that acts such as these can only be committed if the victim is seen as less than human. It was also said that those who commit such acts are animals.

Road Rage

It may not be immediately obvious, but a good illustration to explain how bystanders can watch and even find it entertaining as a victim is beaten and raped may be the phenomenon we all know as road rage. When people are driving, often times they engage in behavior they otherwise might not. We’ve all been there. Someone cuts you off, and you ‘flip them the bird,’ for example. I think at least part of the reason why we feel it is OK on the road is because there is a layer of technology separating us from the offending party. We are not flipping off another person; a human being whose dignity and ‘personhood’ we are obligated to recognize. We are flipping off a ‘driver’ or even just a car (“that stupid Honda in front of me”).

We are separated by layers of technology, which dehumanize the other. In the case of road rage, that technology is the automobile. As a result of this separation, we do not fully engage with all the aspects of a person that make him or her a fully human being. We see no problem in treating others as less than human, because we are only confronted with the limited features of the person that filter through the layer of technology through which we view him or her.

When images of victims are shared on social media for entertainment, there is often also a gross failure to appreciate the human dignity of the victim. He or she is viewed simply as entertainment.

Lest we are too quick to cast the stone at the perpetrators who decided to upload images of their evil deeds, we ought to look in the mirror and realize that the reason why stories about crimes involving sex and violence are so popular in the mainstream as well as social media is because we are entertained by them. Let us also not forget the recent case of the three kidnap victims held hostage and raped repeatedly for a period of 10 years in the suburbs of Cleveland; a case that turned Charles Ramsey into an unlikely ‘hero’ after his colorful interviews went viral on social media. This latter case, of course, did not involve images of the crime being shared by the perpetrator or others. However, the rescue and the subsequent interviews quickly went viral and also called into question the reasons why the public found Charles Ramsey so entertaining to watch. Were we laughing with him, or at him, exposing racist attitudes? Were we otherwise also fascinated with the story because it was like something out of a movie, complete with torture chambers, chains, imprisonment, and rape?

Granted, the story does merit legitimate interest. But does the public also at least partly see the victims (much like the rescuer) as a source of entertainment? This tendency can be seen by analyzing HOW these incidents are reported. Was there an undue focus on the alleged explicit sexual details of the Jodi Arias trial, for example? In what way do the salacious details come to light? What is the purpose of the reports of such details, and the manner in which they are reported?

The Man in the Mirror

I do not want to specifically focus on cases of rape, or talk about our ‘rape culture’ or any such nonsense. I believe the bigger issue is dehumanization. This occurs not only in cases of rape, but it is the essence of racism and a host of other crimes. The perpetrator sees the victim as less than human, which allows him to commit acts that he would otherwise not be able to do against a human being entitled to be treated with dignity.

Dehumanization was the foundation that built the Nazi concentration camps. Hitler’s propaganda machine crafted an elaborate, sustained plan to depict Jews as less than human in the German collective psyche. This resulted in one of the greatest crimes against humanity, perpetrated not by isolated psychopaths, but by many rational men following orders, perhaps with various levels of conviction, but with a sense of duty.

I argue that social media operates partly as a technological filter, through which we view others as less than human, because we are not confronted with the all the personal intricacies of a human being which would prevent us from doing so. This is evident not only in the way that perpetrators and bystanders share depictions of victims, but also in the way the mainstream public is entertained by them. Perhaps more chilling, it is also evident in the way WE JUDGE THE PERPETRATORS. They quickly become animals, deserving of extermination. We become consumed by ‘righteous indignation.’ We forget that even those accused of the most heinous crimes are innocent until proven guilty. After all, accusations of rape sometimes do prove to be ‘buyer’s remorse.’ Suspects sometimes prove to be simply the wrong persons in the wrong places.

But there is something even more disturbing going on. Technology changes the way we communicate, which in turn changes the way we see ourselves. I argue that social media is dehumanizing, because it filters out many aspects of a person such that often times we do not see our online interactions as communications with other human beings, much the same way this occurs in cases of road rage. However, I further argue that technologies such as social media have saturated our society to such an extent that we are beginning to no longer see each other as human even in interpersonal interactions. We confuse the image of a dehumanized ‘thing’ we see through the mirror of social media with the actual persons we encounter in real life. We begin to treat each other as less than human in real life, not only on social media. This may sound far-fetched, but so did the possibility of Nazi extermination camps until it actually happened, after media portrayals of actual human beings as less than human. The portrayals were taken to be the reality.

Ends in themselves

German philosopher Immanuel Kant formulated his famous ‘Categorical Imperative’ through which he sought to establish a basis for morality. He stated this principle in various ways, one of which is roughly translated as “always treat others as ends in themselves, not merely as means.” Kant’s explanation is far more beautiful and complicated than what I can say about it here. I encourage everyone to take the time to explore it in more detail. It is rooted in our common rationality, the concept of duty, and Kant’s desire to build a system of ethics with sometimes ruthless precision.

A plausible argument can be made that modern culture tends to grow away from this principle. Many of our contemporary problems may be explained by this. We no longer see marriage as a goal to which we dedicate ourselves to become something bigger than we are as individuals, but rather as a means of fulfilling our own selfish desires. We see relationships as something we deserve, with ‘soul-mates’ and other such fantastical creatures made to order for our pleasure. We even view children as rights owned by parents, rather than human beings possessing their own rights and dignity. And, of course, we view each other in news stories, and especially through social media, as mere ‘things’ to entertain, shock, or in some other way serve our own ends.

In contrast with the generally negative view of social media as having a tendency to dehumanize us, I believe that it can also have the opposite effect, bringing us closer and realizing that we are all human beings entitled to dignity. However, this is not the way it currently operates, for the most part.

Yes, there was the Arab Spring, and various other events that have been championed as examples that show how technology can bring us together (although the prolonged conflicts and more recently apparent infiltration by extremists would counsel otherwise). We can find other stories and heartwarming examples that seem to underscore the more idealistic view of social media. However, I argue that it is not the stories themselves, but rather, the medium itself, that is responsible for dehumanization; to quote the oft repeated phrase: “the medium is the message.”

The internet and social media in particular operates as a filter of reality and an engine of confirmation bias. Perhaps this is the reason why it is an effective recruiting tool for extremists, precisely because it can engulf individuals in alternate realities where received truths are confirmed time and again, and no real discussion of alternate viewpoints is possible. This may seem counter-intuitive, as we have a tendency to think of the internet as an open forum. However, just take a look at comments on news stories, for example. It immediately becomes apparent that people often have deeply entrenched biases willing to only see what they want to see, with tons of available resources to confirm their views. Critical thinking is not a feature encouraged by sound-bites and blips of opinion taken to be ‘reasoning.’ There simply is no time for such things in a world limited to 160 characters or less.

If there is one principle that can advance the moral standing of any culture or individual, it is the recognition of human dignity in others. This is something we ought to encourage, through technology or otherwise. We are not here to be used as instruments for each others’ convenience, which seems to be the basis of most relationships nowadays, ‘romantic’ or otherwise. We also should refrain from treating others as less than human, which is the common thread that underlies not only the crimes that elicit outrage and indignation, but also our thirst for their gruesome or lewd details that entertain us at the expense of victims, as well as in our appetite for pornography, for example, which is an industry that for the most part is built on documenting the performance of acts intended to transgress norms and treat another as less than human for the purposes of entertainment. Perhaps the most important arena where we ought to exercise the greatest restraint against the tendency to dehumanize is the way in which we treat those we consider ‘enemies.’ Convenient labels such as ‘terrorist’ or ‘rapist’ encourage us to ignore the humanity of those who may be culpable in some way. We should resist this urge, even if the accused are proven guilty. To Kant, our recognition of the humanity of the accused required us to punish him, precisely because as a human being he would also recognize the justice of punishment and want it to be universal law. The failure to treat others with dignity, whether victims or criminals, is not only an injury to those we dehumanize, but to ourselves.

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