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26 October 2014 11:26 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Raping the discourse about rape

  • Ivo Vegter
Few forms of political correctness are as corrosive as outrage over metaphors, analogies and figures of speech. When people have to weigh every word they utter, lest they offend some interest group claiming to speak for a class of victim, their meaning gets lost in a storm of needless noise, and objectors diminish their own moral authority.

There is no way I’ll escape the censure of the self-appointed speech police this week, so I may as well be honest and forthright.

Last week, Leon Louw, executive director of the Free Market Foundation, penned an opinion piece for Business Day in which he compared the government’s strategy with the Business Licensing Bill as analogous to a gang that negotiates with a victim to submit without struggle to being raped by one of their members, or resist and face gang rape. The analogy raises the question: does acquiescence with a lesser violation imply that no violation occurred?

It is a visceral and shocking analogy, but nonetheless a valid one. The same point about strategy emerged in the comments on my own two columns on the subject: The Big Business Bribery Bill, and An Indefensible Defence. By proposing something draconian, and then settling for a lesser version, the government can claim it listened to critics and made concessions, and as a result of its magnanimity and deference to inclusive democracy, agreement was reached.

Predictably, this political deviousness is not the topic of discussion. The analogy instead sparked an outcry by anti-rape activists and some journalists.

The claim is that any analogy that compares rape with something else trivialises the former. “Any reference to rape that isn’t rape offends me,” one objector wrote on Twitter. In addition, the protesters take issue with the notion that rape comes in different levels of severity, as the analogy seemed to imply.

Having never been raped, I have no obvious standing to pronounce subjectively on this matter, of course. Some might say – falsely and revealingly – that my gender disqualifies me from having an opinion. Contrariwise, some might consider objectivity an advantage, since emotion often clouds reason.

For those who believe only a victim has a right to a view, allow me to quote someone who for obvious reasons will remain anonymous. She is a gang-rape survivor, successfully battling the psychological trauma she suffered. She told me: “Who do these people think they are to speak for me? They trivialise rape as just another protest cause. The analogy [by Louw] is perfectly apt, and it does not offend me in the least.”

Having established that there are different opinions among people of equal moral standing on this matter, let us proceed to the issues at hand.

The complaint that there is no such thing as “less extreme rape” seems trite. Contrary to the claims of objectors, this does not imply that certain kinds of rape are “more acceptable”. No kinds of rape are acceptable, obviously, and claiming otherwise is to set up a straw man of a particularly incendiary kind.

The same crimes can be committed in varying degrees of severity, or involve different aggravating or mitigating circumstances. That does not deny their criminal nature. Some murders really are worse than others, even if all lives are considered equal, but nobody would say that implies one murder is “more acceptable” than another.

The former complaint, that using rape as an analogy for a different kind of violation somehow diminishes the severity of rape, appears to have more substance. It is indeed easy to see how rape activists, and more pertinently, rape victims, might be offended by having their experience compared to the entirely different violation of bureaucratic oppression of business.

Let’s leave aside the gravity of business licensing, and stipulate for the sake of argument that losing a business or a job, or paying more for necessaries, would be preferable to being raped, if you were in the unfortunate and unlikely position of having to make such a choice. Let us instead, consult a dictionary. In addition to the obvious meanings, it adds the following:

“rape, (noun) ... 4. an act of plunder, violent seizure, or abuse; despoliation; violation: the rape of the countryside. 5. Archaic. the act of seizing and carrying off by force. (verb) ... 7. to plunder (a place); despoil. 8. to seize, take, or carry off by force.”

The etymology is even more clear: “rape, late 14c., ‘seize prey, take by force,’ from ... Old French raper ‘to seize, abduct,’ a legal term, from Latin rapere ‘seize, carry off by force, abduct’ (see rapid). Latin rapere was used for ‘sexual violation,’ but only very rarely; the usual Latin word being stuprum.”

Evidently, one meaning, and arguably the original one, has nothing to do with the violation of a person’s bodily integrity, but with coercive plunder. In that sense, “rape” is a perfect word for what the Business Licensing Bill proposes to do. Ironically, there is an argument for inventing a new word for rape, that doesn’t trivialise sexual violation by likening it to wartime plunder of an enemy’s crops.

Besides, analogies such as these are commonplace. “Tax is theft.” “Meat is murder.” “My car is crippled.” “The project is a train smash.” They rarely imply literal equivalence, are seldom intended to demean or belittle that which is being compared to, and are not ordinarily interpreted that way.

In fact, they mean to emphasise the severity of the subject under discussion, and would not work if the comparison was to something less serious. The rape analogy would fall flat if it was not widely viewed as extremely grave. Those who wish rape to be taken seriously should welcome its use as the standard for evil, suitable for an expressive, rousing and memorable analogy.

I would be surprised if Louw is not fully aware of the gravity of rape, the dismissive attitudes that some among us hold towards it, or the problems our society and legal system have with preventing, reporting, prosecuting and punishing the crime. It seems only reasonable to give him the benefit of the doubt, and read into his analogy merely that business licensing is an unconscionable violation of privacy and individual freedom.

More to the point, and despite the justification in the dictionary, Louw’s analogy was not so much a comparison of the violations themselves. It was about the strategy the government pursued in threatening a more draconian law in the hope of securing less severe measures. The point was that such a “compromise” would not be an acceptable outcome, since it would still be a violation, just like the rape of a compliant victim by only one man is still an unconscionable violation of the integrity of her person.

Could he have used a better analogy? Perhaps, but not many come to mind.

Maybe the classic highway bandit line, “Your money or your life,” might work. Or one could contrive a scenario involving a murderer who offers his victim a choice to resist and suffer a prolonged, painful death, or to comply and instead receive a quick, merciful execution.

Does that trivialise murder, or the suffering of murder victims? Does the observation that robbery or execution are less severe than murder or drawn-out torture in any way suggest the former are acceptable?

Ironically, other analogies would work better only if rape really were trivialised. That it is preferred over a murder or robbery analogy indicates that the speaker considers it even more extreme and evocative.

One could make the argument that rape is a sensitive point, because it is often not taken sufficiently seriously by the authorities, or society at large. This may be true, although a significant cause of that perception may be the unfortunate fact that it is a particularly difficult crime to investigate and prosecute by conventional legal standards. It also does not make rape unique. Many other crimes used in analogy suffer similar problems. For example, embezzlement is often not reported because of the harm it might cause to the reputation of the victim. And what does the high level of violence attendant upon lesser crimes say about how our society values life? There is no justification to hold speech involving rape to a unique standard.

The rape victim to whom I spoke made another telling point: that such popular protests themselves trivialise rape. Her fear – and it seems well-grounded – is that grandstanding by anti-rape activists makes the message commonplace, and the messengers appear shrill. This diminishes their effectiveness when they turn their energies to the very real issues faced by rape victims. Do their reflexive attacks on anyone who dares use rape as an analogy enhance their moral authority, or merely invite eye-rolling? If it is the latter, whether justifiable or not, the outrage is not a productive way to use limited time, public attention and resources. They could more usefully be spent on designing and promoting practical solutions.

Conversely, when people fear being unfairly attacked by interest groups or activists over every turn of phrase that might conceivably cause offence to someone, the effect is to chill public speech.

How many people already brag about not being “politically correct”, because they are proud not to let “nannies” limit their freedom of speech? Do anti-rape activists really want to be dismissed as just another group of sanctimonious busybodies?

How often do people say “no comment”, unless a public relations professional or legal expert can review, edit and approve their words? Does this make the powerful any more transparent or accountable? Does it improve public discourse, or dampen it?

Why is this column not about the very important issue that Louw intended to raise? That valuable contribution to the public discourse risks being lost amid the noise and fury. One could attribute that to Louw’s own lack of foresight about what might happen, but that, to my mind, misses the point.

Public attacks on this kind of analogy are well intended. They express a deep and justifiable frustration with the status quo, and a true regard for the sensitivities of traumatised rape victims.

But while acknowledging that, remember this. The objectors do not speak for all rape survivors. Their restrictive standard of expression is not based in etymological fact, and even contradicts what the analogy really implies: that rape is an evocative standard for non-trivial evil. Outraged reactions are not morally unambiguous, and may cause real harm to freedom of speech. Most worryingly, they risk undermining their own cause by themselves trivialising the public discourse about rape. That would be a great shame. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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