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Making Monsters

Hoover Tower and the Stanford University campus, seen from the air
Stanford University. Photo by Jitze Couperus.

Can you imagine The Washington Post publishing a photo of an African-American student athlete who had been convicted of a sex crime, with an explicit reference to his race followed by the statement: “this is what a campus sexual predator looks like?”

I can’t. And thankfully so, because one would hope that the days of that kind of grotesque racial stereotyping are long gone. But they are not quite – not if the student athlete in question has fair skin, gray eyes and attended Stanford University.

Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak referred to Brock Turner as “a white college kid” and labeled him a sexual predator two sentences later. You could dismiss her article as merely the blathering of one fool, except that other fools had to be involved in publishing it. Maybe, by the time you read this, the original article will have been taken down. But at a minimum, it survived more than 24 hours after I first saw it.

A mob mentality has overtaken the discussion of campus sexual assault in America. Turner’s case is the one currently dominating our conversation, but the mentality itself is not new. A little over a year ago, we saw Rolling Stone’s high-profile story about sexual assault at the University of Virginia fall apart under closer scrutiny. Campus sexual assault is a real problem, and its victims deserve justice and sympathy. But the answer to the problem is not to dispense with critical thinking and due process.

Yet these tendencies have been fed by the Obama administration’s Justice and Education Departments, which increasingly demand college administrators throw due process out the window and punish alleged assailants before the facts have been determined. This spring, a round of federal letters expanded the definition of sexual harassment and pushed particular schools for harsher responses. The push takes the form of guidance, not regulations (which would present a target for court challenges), but the message is clear enough.

Brock Turner has been convicted by a jury, yet the way the public expressed outrage at his sentence is another reflection of the mob mentality surrounding the issue. There are ample grounds to criticize his sentence. Turner received six months in jail and three years of probation, though he faced up to 14 years in prison based on the charges. Prosecutors had asked for a six-year prison sentence.

The county judge who handed down Turner’s sentence, Aaron Persky, is a public official; being second-guessed by the public comes with the job. Persky is now the subject of a recall effort by California voters, though legal experts have said actually recalling him would be a complicated and difficult process. Still, many bystanders have made clear that they see Persky’s sentencing as wildly disproportionate to the seriousness of Turner’s crime. Notwithstanding the fact that the judge heard all the evidence in the trial, while most people criticizing him have seen only the presentencing statement offered by the victim, everyone is entitled to their own opinion about how Turner should have been punished.

But what about the punishment for Good English, an Ohio garage band that lost the opportunity to play several gigs in Brooklyn, New York, simply because its drummer spoke up on behalf of Turner, with whom she grew up? All she did was offer the judge another perspective about the defendant. This is the purpose of allowing people who know either the defendant or the victim to provide such presentencing input to the person who ultimately decides what punishment is appropriate for the particular crime. Such input is routine in most criminal sentences these days.

The drummer, Leslie Rasmussen, did not use her letter to dismiss or defend Turner’s conduct, which of course she did not witness. Nor did she blame the victim. Her letter did not even come anywhere near the infamous “20 minutes of action” comment from the defendant’s father and his misplaced lamentation over his son’s loss of appetite for ribeye. Rasmussen, who has said she did not know her letter would become part of the public record, simply wanted to provide context to the judge who would be deciding Turner’s ultimate fate.

But the mere act of saying in public that Turner is “not a monster” made Rasmussen and Good English pariahs in ever-so-politically-correct Brooklyn. Larry Hyland, an owner of one of the venues that has canceled the band’s scheduled appearance, told The New York Times, “We don’t want to be affiliated with anyone that’s going to try to victim-blame or even just downplay rape.” He clarified that, while he disagreed with Rasmussen, he mainly canceled the appearance out of concerns for the safety of the musicians and bar patrons after Facebook messages and emails included threats of a confrontation if the band were to perform. So it goes in Brooklyn, where Dvorak’s broadly painted portrait of young white men in The Washington Post apparently escaped notice.

Good English’s position reminds me of the public reaction to the Dixie Chicks in 2003, when they spoke out against then-President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Lead singer Natalie Maines said during a concert that she was ashamed that Bush hailed from her native Texas, leading to nationwide outrage. Many radio stations pulled the band from their playlists, and the band faced protests and at least one serious death threat against Maines. The backlash was chronicled in the film “Shut Up and Sing” and led the group to write the song “Not Ready to Make Nice,” for which they eventually won three Grammy Awards, including record of the year.

Despite this recognition, the Dixie Chicks still faced years of professional consequences and threats against their personal safety for stating their opinion. Yet they were not responsible for prosecuting the war. And, as far as I know, Bush himself never spoke out against their music. He understood that public disagreement came with the job.

We live in a strange time where, for a large and vocal slice of the population, certain stories cannot have more than one side. Therefore it is fair game to consider the race of a convicted sex offender as representative – as long as he is white.

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