06 April 2011


CAVEAT -- today's post is not pretty. Readers who are sensitive to the seamy underbelly of life may wish to proceed with caution. On the other hand, whether or not you are sensitive, you may find food for thought that proves useful in your own life.

RAPE. There are few acts of violence uglier or more psychologically damaging than rape. The ugliness is compounded when rape (or any other assault) occurs in front of witnesses who do nothing to intervene. How sick is it, then, when an 11-year old girl is raped at least six times over a period of three months, not just by an individual, but by various members of a group of nineteen men, ages 14 to 27? This scenario played out in the small town of Cleveland, Texas, as reported in the NYTimes. The arrests of the suspects "have raised fundamental questions about how a girl might have been repeatedly abused by many men and boys in a tightly knit community without any adult intervening, or even seeming to register that something was amiss, until sexually explicit videos of the victim began circulating in local schools.

" 'It wasn't that anyone was asleep,' said the Rev. Travis Hulett Jr., the pastor of the New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, which anchors the Precinct 20 neighborhood where most of the defendents live. 'You can be awake and see things and still not do anything.' "

Really? Shades of Kitty Genovese. Sorry, but I don't agree. I've risked my own life more than once in the defense of animals and people, and will do so again if the need arises. It is incumbent upon all of us to understand both the benign and the horrific sides of our human nature, so that we are equipped to make the most humane, elevating choices possible in any situation. Turning away from violence or ugly behavior is, ultimately, no solution. The people of Cleveland, Texas, have a lot of soul-searching to do.

As does anyone in a position of physical or economic power over others. As a species we are still evolving, and it is an open question whether we will survive our own environmental myopia long enough to become enlightened beings. There are many among us who choose the easy path of criminal behavior, over the more disciplined path of integrity. Case in point -- the Southern Poverty Law Center recently reported that sexual assaults against immigrant women have taken on the proportions of a human rights tragedy in the United States. There remains an undercurrent of misogynistic predation in our culture, about which few wish to think. In our apathy, we allow roughly half of all women to endure at least one incident of sexual harrassment in their lifetimes. For immigrant women, the proportion is more like 80 percent. Power should carry with it responsibility, not the opportunity for predation.

I'm enough of a cynic not to be surprised when I encounter such barbarity. We are, after all, only 66 years removed from the Holocaust. Genocide, rape, murder, child abuse, are still with us. But I'm also enough of an idealist to believe that we are capable of better, and that it is necessary not just to speak out, but to stand up to those who choose not to control their own impulses toward violence. We are a nation of laws, and we are also a nation of individuals capable of defending victims of abuse .... if only we make that decision.

BLOODLUST. One step removed from actual violence is the portrayal of violence -- in books, in films, in folklore. Many among us shy away from the portrayal. Others are drawn to it, whether from resonance with their own fantasies. or from an effort to understand and prevent it. Tom Jacobs' essay Bloodlust and Jokes and What Lies In Between explores vividly reproduced violence in the context of Quentin Tarentino's signature 1994 film "Pulp Fiction". With references to Stendahl, Flannery O'Connor and Herbert Marcuse, Jacobs posits that violence on film elicits not only shock but (counterintuitively) sometimes laughter, the kind of laughter which signals not enjoyment, but rather a nervous response to the shock of the unknown. "Scenes of violence slap us out of our general stupor, they make us see things again in strange ways .... Violence both matters to us and it doesn't. It is both upsetting and funny. We see It as a spectator and as someone who imagines oneself in those particular ill-fitting shoes. We need to be shocked, convulsed out of our traditional ways of consuming and watching it in order to really see it and its relation to our mundane lives. Everyone's mortality is unique .... Violence tends to focus the attention even as it unveils something of our vanities. Violence (which is different from suffering) when expressed in fictional form and crosscut with a sense of humor is, in today's world, perhaps the only way to make us see."

One could draw similar parallels with graphically-violent films like "300" or "Sin City". It is an interesting thesis, one with which I'm not yet certain I agree. Click on the link above to view the entire essay, and see what you think.

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