Women, Authority, Power

A recent case in Canada has created a furor amongst the literati. There have, of course, been numerous apologies issued.

The problem in this situation, and in many others, is that there is a conflict between those who have power, and those who are attempting to seek justice — and no one can tell which side is which. Traditionally the authority rested on the side of the government: Kings, Queens, Emperors and Empresses could have those who displeased them summarily executed for no more reason than a whim. And contemporary legal systems have largely evolved to directly contend with this problem; innocent until proven guilty and variations on this notion provide a degree of defence to those who may be unjustly accused, arrested for political or personal reasons, or simply those who are at odds with the establishment.

But contemporary culture is beginning to acknowledge that the long history of abuses of power has often allowed political and economic power to overshadow the effects of different forms of social power, including power conferred by culturally dominant groups via racial and sexual discrimination. This is not a new realisation, but it is one that is only gradually being addressed.

Arguably society has been far faster to address issues of economic and political disparity, as these problems have historically had a far greater effect on the socially dominant groups (men, usually caucasian, in several of the most obvious examples). The Magna Carta was drafted in the 13th century, but women did not receive the vote, for instance, until the 20th century in most countries.

But laws change slowly, and most countries are still more worried about — if not outright experiencing — more cases of the government abusing the ability to prosecute rather than citizens the ability to accuse. This results in laws that favour the accused, granting a degree of immunity and placing the burden of proof on the government — and by extension, on the accuser. But in cases where the defendant has dominant social privilege, this burden of proof is placed on a person who may be a victim at the hands of both the defendant and then the society at large.

I dislike the term “Rape Culture” — probably in part because acknowledging its accuracy it creates cognitive dissonance by making an uncomfortable truth inescapable: victims of sexual crimes are very rarely given justice, and this in effect, if not intent, perpetuates the commission of this sort of crime. Yet it is difficult to argue that culture does not support and thereby perpetuate rape and sexual assault when, by putting the burden of proof on the victim of a crime of this nature, society as a whole places already socially underprivileged individuals in a position of direct conflict with people who have more social privilege and the benefit of victory in the case of any doubt. Is there any need to look further for a reason why so few sexual assault cases are reported?

What is truly disturbing is that even with this disadvantage for the victim, those who do report their cases and proceed as far as a trial have a depressingly low success rate, coupled with penalties for the convicted that in many countries seem like a slap on the wrist for a naughty child, rather than the deliberate actions of a person who has decided that another’s value and agency as an individual is simply not important. Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner asserts that all sin is theft: whether by literally taking a person’s property, or metaphorically by taking a person’s life, future, family. Assault and rape are the theft of choice and freedom and free will, and these actions leave deep scars.

We just need to be certain that our actions to prevent those scars on individuals do not create equal or greater scars on society. We must stop the theft of freedom and choice wherever possible — for every individual, and for our society.