Friday, November 06, 2009

Son of Polanski or Abandonment vs. Rape

How did we get from an arrest on a 30-year-old bench warrant to the airing of emotionally charged personal experience as the basis for judging "l'affaire Polanski"? I plead guilty to having been drawn in, but I do think it is time for the mind to overcome feeling.

Let me replay what has happened in my neighborhood of the blogosphere. About a week ago, novelist Helen DeWitt posted on her blog Paperpools an excerpt from an opinion piece by one Jenny Diski in the London Review of Books concerning the Polanski rape charge.*

Diski admits to the same initial yawning ennui I felt when Polanski was arrested. Then, a coterie of self-important intellectual celebrities (oxymoron intended) signed a petition arguing that "good sense, as well as honour" required the release of Polanski, citing, as the proverbial kitchen sink, the film director's alleged suffering under the Nazis and the Soviets in Poland.

Merely appealing to Godwin's Law (aka Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies), namely, that the first person to call another a Nazi automatically loses the argument, would have served Diski well. Bernard-Henri Lévy, the author of the missive, is a well-known, attention-seeking buffoon who won't accept mere foolishness when total lunacy can be had.

But no. Diski had to regale us with a blow by blow narrative of her own experience of being raped. Perhaps the article brought some cathartic relief to the writer, but you have to wonder what demons still lurk in Diski's mind to provoke this pornographic act of self-exposure.

What appalling desensitization has occurred in Western society that Diski feels justified in recounting every gory detail of her violation to get a showstopping reaction?

I know rape. I understand it. I don't need to know what orifices were involved to feel horrified by it. You will have to trust me here because I will not add my personal detritus to the blogosphere.

Indeed, abandoning all good sense, perhaps under the influence of Diski's boundary smashing, I replied on DeWitt's blog with a comment that described an equally illegal and heart-rending experience of my own abandonment -- albeit without Diski's gusto for clinical detail --  only to be met with derision by someone who didn't even bother to read carefully.**

I'm not interested in a contest to decide who is more victimized. Diski apparently has a column in a well-known British periodical and has not, that I can tell, spent her life on a grate or in a slum in Latin America. Neither have I. We both had terrible experiences while young, but we are also both lucky far beyond what either deserves.

My point is that, while what happened to Diski inspires sympathy (not so Diski's lurid retelling), should the feelings of someone who experienced such a thing be the chief basis on which judgment is rendered by a civilized society?

Or should the rule of law and the development of moral philosophy spring from a somewhat more detached, less self-interested, source?

We have courts of law and rules for due process precisely because society rejects the lex talionis and judgment by the aggrieved as uncivilized. We accept empirical observation and logical discourse as sources of, at a minimum, approximate truth. We know we can express them in universal terms that, while never entirely devoid of subjectivity, fairly distinguish their a priori biases from their findings.

Such conventions do not arise out of disdain for sentimentality or nonrational discourse -- not, at least, on my part -- but because feeling, intuition, nonlinear thought and the like are all ineffable and extremely subjective, to the point that it is impossible to separate conclusions from prejudice.

This is why feelings and experiences cannot be called upon to serve as a basis for deciding what to do with Polanski, or to enunciate principles.

* WARNING: the texts are graphic and raw. If you insist, read the blog here and Diski's piece here.

** As the immortal Felix Unger once taught, "when you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U and ME." See the exchange at the bottom of this page.


Anonymous said...

Polanski is a whipping boy for American hysteria concerning child sexual abuse. That should in those interested in the truth raise a red flag to try and look deeper into what is known about the case. Samantha Geimers testimony is offset by the probation report conclusion that there is evidence the victim was willing. The ramifications of this are completely ignored by the lynch Polanski crowd. It means there are two different stories as to what happened. Some will say that Polanski pled guilty to unlawful intercourse but can we say with certainty that the plea was truthful. Polanski believed he would not be imprisoned and had to state true or not that he knew the age of the victim as part of the plea. At least three witnesses said the victim could have passed for 18. The victim’s comment was I think he knew? However we are not told how he knew? Although Polanski’s affair with Natasha Kinski has been raised as evidence against Polanski the fact is she was at the age of consent in France. The bottom line is that without a trial one cannot even be sure that Polanski broke the law in 1976 California.

Mithridates said...

Again, I think you miss the point. You write:

"My point is that, while what happened to Diski inspires sympathy (not so Diski's lurid retelling), should the feelings of someone who experienced such a thing be the chief basis on which judgment is rendered by a civilized society?"

All I ask is that you find a quotation from Diski's text in which she even suggests that her feelings should be the chief basis on which judgment should be rendered. She doesn't say this anywhere, as far as I can tell, nor is this even implied by her piece. Can't her piece be viewed as providing people with a vivid example of what it is like to be raped?

You also write:

"Or should the rule of law and the development of moral philosophy spring from a somewhat more detached, less self-interested, source?"

The rule of law and moral philosophy are two very different things. It would be more difficult for me to argue this with regard to law, but with regard to moral philosophy I think this is easy: any moral philosophy worth anything takes the feelings of others seriously into account. The reason we have moral philosophies that tell us not to be cruel to others is precisely because we all know what it feels like to suffer physical and emotional harm, no? There are aspects of every moral philosophy worth even considering that are based SOLELY on respecting and protecting the feelings of others, that have nothing to do with abstract notions of privacy, independence, or whatever.

--But again, I should emphasize that I think this has nothing to do with the reasons Diski wrote her piece.

Cecilieaux said...

To Anonymous, basically, yes.

To Mithriades, from the moment this female exposer launches into her non sequitur rape story, there's a running comparison between what she felt and what Samantha Geimer felt, as well as what her rapist said or did and what Polanski allegedly said or did -- and what fate should befall Polanski.

Also, just because some sages of the past have counseled respect for other people's feelings, it doesn't mean that the feelings themselves were the issue at stake, rather than respect for the human being -- regardless of how absurd, selfish or undeserving the feelings.

Finally, there is no doubt that the reason Diski wrote her piece is extremely similar to the reason some women strip at nightclubs.

Mithridates said...

The law already tells us what should befall Polanski; Diski is narrating the experience of rape to remind us how horrible it is. You may know what rape is and not need descriptions of it, but people who dismiss what Polanski did, such as BHL and others, might benefit from them.

But what we've clarified is that you can't provide any textual evidence whatsoever for your claim that Diski is inviting us to establish moral principles or laws based solely on her feelings and her experience.

What is less clear for me now is why women strip. My guess is that they don't strip in order to give their audience members reasons for establishing moral principles, which is the reason you think Diski wrote her piece. You're saying that Diski is being an exhibitionist, I suppose, because she was an abuse victim who wants to tell people exactly what happened to her. She writes because she was abused, just like many strippers strip because they were abused.

But let's say some other horrible thing had happened to Diski. What if she had been living in war zone and she wanted to describe what she experienced? Would you call her writing lurid, etc., if she described the realities of war in detail? Or would that be evidence of desensitization as well? Part of the reason we don't really do much about horrible crimes is that we fail to imagine what these crimes are really like. What I find disturbing in your claims is this idea that when a person has something absolutely horrific happen to her, she should just keep her silence or not describe what happened to her in detail because that would offend some people's sensibilities.

What is the respect for the human being based on? Bentham, and more recently Peter Singer, and others, have argued that the basis for moral consideration is the capacity to feel. Abstract respect for the human being simply for being a human being is speciesism. We give moral consideration to beings that can feel pain. We don't give moral consideration or respect to other kinds of beings that can't feel (vegetation, for example).

One reason Diski didn't appeal "to Godwin's Law (aka Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies), namely, that the first person to call another a Nazi automatically loses the argument," is that no one called anyone a Nazi. BHL is not implying that Polanski's pursuers are Nazis in his letter. He is clearly trying to get sympathy for Polanski by stating a fact about his life. He writes:

"Seventy-six years old, a survivor of Nazism and of Stalinist persecutions in Poland, Roman Polanski risks spending the rest of his life in jail for deeds which would be beyond the statute-of-limitations in Europe."

At most, BHL is claiming that Polanski's pursuers are acting, well, like Americans, who arrest "common terrorist[s]" in the middle of the night, in total disregard of international law and its own rule of due process.

So BHL would've gotten off lightly if Diski wrote that he shouldn't call people Nazis; all he would have to do, in that case, is quote his own text and show that he isn't comparing anyone to Nazis.

Actually, BHL's letter is filled with non sequitors. Polanski's age. Polanski's past sufferings. The European statute of limitations. These are all TOTALLY irrelevant. Unlike BHL, Diski is not trying to directly influence the conduct of the law. She is giving some perspective to those who blindly support Polanski without knowing or even considering what it's like to be a young rape victim.

Cecilieaux said...

Not quite, Mithriades, but I would like to move the discussion back top Helen's blog, where Diski's language has appeared already and will not shock anyone.