Sunday, July 13, 2014

Rape: another bungled process, another wounded woman

The New York Times has today a front page story that is an appalling account of misconduct in the investigation of rape charges on the campus of Hobart and William Smith college (Reporting Rape).

It has all the features that have become so depressingly familiar: a university process that seems random when it isn't incompetent and the usual story of football players, alcohol, and a drunken female student who almost wishes she hadn't reported her assault.  And, oh yes, despite physical evidence of violent sex, possible DNA evidence and defendants lying: an acquittal on all counts in record time. 

Stories like this, and the inevitable generalizations they provoke about how women are never taken seriously and always blamed for being victims of crime will, also inevitably produce counter generalizations about PC run amuck and students, mostly male, being victimized and expelled for having the wrong thoughts or the wrong words, or the like.

But, rather than having dueling examples, it would be more helpful if we stepped back and noticed what all these stories actually have in common: a shabby process that runs on assumptions and stereotypes and not data or due process.

University "discipline committees" seem to be a world totally out of control and a law unto themselves.  In the story at hand the three sitting in judgment on this woman didn't even look at the report from her rape kit, didn't let her present her story in a coherent way and seemed totally untrained.  More fundamentally she couldn't have even an non-lawyer advocate speak for her, didn't get to cross-examine witnesses and had no real ability to defend herself.

More generally, time and again we hear that people on these committees have little or no training, wander off into irrelevancies, and, still, after all these years, have trouble distinguishing the desire to get loose on alcohol and have fun from the (non-existent) desire to be gang-raped.  And, equally it seems, they can't distinguish an insult tossed off in the spur of the moment from a plan to gang-rape.

The colleges in question still don't seem to get it.  In the wake of the Times article the college president put out a masterful collection of weasel words that continues on the passive aggressive velvet nonsense quoted in the article.  They care, they take all allegations seriously, they want to dialogue, they are committed to listening carefully, yada, yada, yada—all the corporate PR pabulum we've come to expect.  But they aren't angry their female students are getting assaulted, the male leaders aren't gathering the male members of the community and telling them to grow up or get out, and they certainly giving the message to pampered athletes that they don't get a pass—they aren't leading at all.

Even if they were, two overarching faults doom these processes even if the people involved were smart and sensitive.  First is the assumption that patterns and generalities can decide a specific case.  It doesn't matter what percentage of the time women make up allegations or change their mind after intimacy begins, what we have to know is what happened in this case.  It doesn't matter the rate of boys wanting sex and pushing it on reluctant girls, we need to know what happened in this case. 

All our painfully won principles of due-process are devoted to wresting us away from generalities to specifics.  The reason evidence has to be proved physical evidence sought and witnesses cross-examined, and people have trained advocates to assist them in presenting a case, and why hearsay has to be discounted and on and on is precisely because generalizations are misleading.  This case, any case, is not "women vs. men" it's specific to a time, a place, and the particular people.

The second problem is conflict of interest.  The people on college panels are employees of the college whose careers and friendships are at the college.  Even if they don't know the football team, they know how angry some will be to hear it criticized.  They, in the same manner of old-line Catholic bishops, want to "avoid a scandal" that will "needlessly damage the reputation of a good school." 

And what on earth are college employees doing investigating allegations of a felony?  Yes, there are offenses that the college can discipline for that do not rise to the level of crimes, but once it appears that there is the possibility that a crime has been committed the police need to be called.  Yes, they have their problems too (read about a sloppy process in this case) but the police are not part of the institution of the college and failing to inform them of a crime, and acting to hush up a crime seems, to me at least, to run the risk of being an accessory after the fact.  And aren't there mandatory reporting requirements that might be triggered here?

The inability of colleges to grasp the basics of how you actually find out the truth and the basics of citizen rights in a democracy is saddening.  But even sadder are those who are firmly convinced that they don't need to grasp any of those things because they already know what must have taken place.  I don't care if this is conservatives bemoaning that "women are always claiming to be the victim" or liberals who convinced they have the morally correct opinion of everything and so can dispense with data.

In general I shun raising these points in mixed company as I have found very few people indeed who can think other than in stereotypes.  Either "women have all the power" or "all women live in fear all the time of all men."  Any questioning of the liberal line or the conservative one leads to people backing away like you are infected.  We insist on pitting victims against each other and so if 10 men were mistreated that's of no account and they deserve it because 25 women were mistreated worse.  And they probably were—but probably not by the specific men who got shafted by some other process gone amuck.

The real lessons are the one societies have been forgetting and painfully relearning since the dawn of civilization:  power corrupts, conflict of interest is fatal and, oh yes, due process and suspending judgment until you've proven what happened really are good ideas.

Someday we won't try to solve injustice against women by recounting stories of injustice to men, or calling in the spin doctors, instead we'll try to stop all of it.  That would take leadership by women and men.  It would take men--as opposed to boys in fancy suits.