Monday, July 11, 2016

On Narratives and Facts

I know someone who went to Duke. I chatted with him 10 years ago, when the lacrosse scandal was falling apart. He's a lawyer, he hated the prosecutor, Mike Nifong, and I didn't blame him. Still, I asked him if he knew why the story sounded credible to so many people. I can only paraphrase the answer: "A friend of mine said it best: 'If I was told that a group of people on campus invited a black stripper to their fraternity and then gang-raped her, I would say that it was the lacrosse team. If I was then told that it wasn't the lacrosse team, I would say, no, that's not true. It was the lacrosse team.'"

The national news media did an awful job in covering the case. As late as the fall in 2006, when it was becoming more and more obvious that the case was bogus, the Times ran an insanely long article from a sports journalist who threw up his hands and claimed that there was no way to know what happened on the night in question. But under the microscope, the media did pick up stories that matched the basic thesis: If there was one group of people on that campus, hell, in this country, who would be capable of this atrocity, it would be the lacrosse team. These guys told evil, misogynist jokes. They followed a pack-herd mentality. One of the accused went to Landon, a private school in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I grew up, that had a reputation for grooming these types.  

The sad thing is that the Duke lacrosse case became a focal point for all our issues of race, rape culture, misogyny, power, and class on college campuses. The narrative, if true, would have been perfect for activists who could have screamed, "See! This is what it is! This is what it is! This is what it is!" Instead, the case became fodder for everyone who ever wanted to complain about reverse racism or the myth of sexual assault. Jeannie Suk, writing about a similar case nine years later in The New Yorker, diagnosed the problem: "The imperative to act as though every accusation must be true -- when we all know that some number will not be -- harms the over-all credibility of sexual assault claims."

Obviously, a parallel could be made with police shootings. I remain convinced that Eric Garner's murderer should be rotting away in prison, as should George Zimmerman. I'm not so sure about the cop who killed Michael Brown and neither was Barack Obama's Justice Department. I'm not convinced Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Grey, or the rest were angels whose farts reeked of sweet perfume. I am convinced that they all had their good points and bad points in various measures, that they were all as mediocre as myself, and that none of them deserved to die. And I believe that if they were all white, most of them would still be alive. 

The victims may not be the most likable people on earth. But I, personally, would feel no differently about the need for body cameras, a Voting Rights Act-equivalent for policing and gun control if it were proven that Alton Sterling was a terrible human being, or that the video was somehow engineered by an evil mastermind.  The film studies part of me knows that any video can lie. If I died tomorrow in a national tragedy, there would be plenty of people to sing my praises, but there might be some real sonofabitches who would use the opportunity to tarnish my memory and humiliate my family. Those policies should not be reliant on the twists and turns in any particular case, or unpleasant footnotes in the biographies of any of the victims. 

And although I'm not sure of the policies necessary to fight sexual assault on college campuses, I was just as certain after the Duke lacrosse case fell apart as I was before that reform was needed. And apparently, everyone was just as certain as they were before that the Duke lacrosse team were a bunch of jerks.

I don't know how you solve this problem. Movements need narratives. They need stories and martyrs. Statistics don't speak to anyone's emotions. Human beings do. Most people are not going to read a smart, subtle examination of any particular tragedy. And so the Black Lives Matter movement is reduced to deflecting any criticism that may tarnish the image of Alton Sterling, and it is caught in the uncomfortable position of acknowledging that the police shooters deserve a fair trial while also knowing that nothing less than a guilty verdict will offer any satisfaction. 

The inconvenient facts of the Emmett Till case were unknown at the time and were only revealed decades later. Among them, some of his killers were black. Those facts if known would have complicated the narrative. They would have confused the racial dynamic the case presented. They would have prevented Till from becoming the icon the Civil Rights movement needed.  

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