One of the interesting things about the study of public opinion is that Americans all have basically the same values. The difference is in how we prioritize them and how consistently we adhere to them. Politically, most people consider the concept of equality and our constitutional rights to be core values, but we often abandon them when we feel sufficiently threatened
by scary brown people. Whenever I read this type of research I think about my own priorities. I value things like logic and consistency more than anything. It displeases me when things are unpredictable, especially in personal interactions. I don't like emotional reasoning – although like everyone, I do it myself sometimes – or people who have a million exceptions for every principle in which they claim to believe.
So, let me pose a question: If those two sixteen year old boys in Steubenville were charged with armed robbery rather than sexual assault, would you feel bad for them? In a way, I would.
Please remain calm and keep reading.
I would feel bad for them insasmuch as I think crime is a social problem with social causes; people do not fall from the womb with their switch turned to Evil and, as adults, decide to sell drugs or steal cars because it's thrilling. I think people react to the way they're raised and they generally choose the best of the options available to them. For many people living in the typical post-industrial shit hole like Steubenville, selling drugs is the most lucrative profession available to them by far. So if these guys were two common street criminals ("juvenile delinquents", if we're making an After School Special) conservatives would argue personal responsibility and punishment while the rest of us would argue mitigating circumstances and rehabilitation.
I don't feel bad for those guys because they had good grades or played football or were Nice Boys or anything else of the sort. In fact "Feel bad for" is the wrong phrase altogether. My point is simply this: We cannot believe that our justice system is fundamentally fucked up, which it most certainly is, and that crime has environmental causes and then suddenly become throw-the-book-at-'em Personal Responsibility chanting right-wingers if the crime they committed is especially offensive to us. Searching the archives I'm estimating that I've written 75-100 posts over the years about prison, law enforcement, miscarriages of justice, and the like. I don't think prison makes anyone better, ever, unless we count becoming a better criminal. And I think that we, as Americans, often scream for tougher sentences and harsh punishments to project our own sense of responsibility onto whichever sacrificial lambs were too poor to buy their way out of court.
In the context of the juvenile justice system, the sentence handed out to those rapists – and they will now be labeled so for life, as they should be – seems appropriate and unexceptional. If you were expecting or wanted more (drawing and quartering has been proposed, pending the availability of horses) I'd encourage you to examine your own motives. Why? Do you suddenly believe that the purpose of the justice system is to punish? Do you believe that incarceration fixes people?
Replace the phrase "feel bad for" with pity. I pity those boys because they are products of a society that has told them for their entire lives that what they did to the victim (of which there is only one here) is acceptable behavior. When I say "society" I don't mean Steubenville; I mean the whole country. We all live in Steubenville when it comes to creating…I'm not fond of the term "rape culture", but…creating a society that excuses, condones, victim-blames, shames, and does everything else except tell boys and men don't drug people and fuck them while they're unconscious. Read that part again. That's what they did. They hatched a plan to drug the victim and then have sex with her repeatedly while she was essentially inert. We live in a society so messed up that it is not immediately apparent to two 16 year old boys that this is wrong, or a thing they should not do. Instead they believed it was a thing Boys do while Being Boys, that the victim deserved or earned it, and that no harm could or should come to them for doing it.
That, my friends, is our fault. My fault. Yours too. That is our collective responsibility. Ultimately the perpetrators are responsible for their actions. But the rest of us bear some responsibility for what they believed. It's acceptable, she deserves it, we shouldn't be punished. They believed that so completely that they videotaped it and posted it on the internet, for Christ's sake. Most people – though not all people – don't take video of themselves committing crimes, and they're certainly not stupid enough to show all and sundry afterward if they do. Neither the attackers nor their friends and community thought that – pardon me for being emphatic – drugging a girl and having sex with her while she was unconscious was a crime. It was some sort of prank. Ha ha. You know, like that time you recorded your friend getting hit in the face with a pie.
You can take the Bill Bennett point of view if you want and conclude that these boys did not understand that what they did was a crime because The Evil lurks within them and they are Bad Apples and without morality or whatever. Or you can ask, How bad must the messages we send to, and examples we set for, young men be if by the time they reach near-adulthood they think it's acceptable to drug people and rape them? That they would in any way be surprised or confused to be arrested and prosecuted for doing so?
I believe they should be punished, but that we focus on them and on the punishment to avoid addressing our own contributions to this culture of acceptance, of victim-blaming, of excuse-making, and of misinformation? It's easy to say "Hang 'em high" or "The bitch wanted it" and then walk away. The difficult part is reflecting on our own contributions to a system that sends men into adulthood with such a warped set of beliefs about women, sex, and the boundaries of their own behavior.