Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Competing Narratives: The Brock Turner Case

For much of last week the case of Brock Turner, a Stanford student convicted of raping an unconscious woman, took over the internet. It went viral when the victim issued her own statement at Mr. Turner's sentencing, and when a letter sent by Mr. Turner's father to the judge in the case pleading for leniency was released into the internet wild. It's been bumped from the "front pages" by the Orlando shooting (about which I will write separately), but it remains and will remain a powerful parable.

The case raises many broader issues: the power of privilege and wealth, "rape culture" on campuses, race and the fairness (or lack thereof) of the criminal justice system. All are issues we've been battling over for the last few years; that they all combined in one single story says much about why this particular incident has such a powerful pull.

The story that took over the internet centered around two competing narratives: the narrative of the victim, movingly shared in her lengthy statement linked above, and the narrative constructed by Mr. Turner and his family and friends. Thanks to a lot of work and a lot of discussion in recent years, the narratives of victims of sexual assault have come to be taken seriously, even to hold a place of cultural dominance. So many people are so angry with Mr. Turner's sentence (six months in jail, likely reduced to three for good behavior) and with the Turner family precisely because they seem out of sync with the victim's story of suffering.

The Turner narrative is a throwback to a time when alcohol could be blamed as a causal factor, that this sort of thing could be put down simply to "too much drinking" and "bad judgment". There was a time when those stories would have held sway. As the Turner family is learning, that time is gone.

This narrative is apparent in a number of statements written to the court on Mr. Turner's behalf, including one from the local municipal judge (and former federal prosecutor), who said in part:
There is no doubt Brock made a mistake that night — he made a mistake in drinking excessively to the point where he could not fully appreciate that his female acquaintance was so intoxicated. I know Brock did not go to that party intending to hurt, or entice, or overpower anyone. That is not his nature. It never has been.
The problem with this narrative is that we no longer believe that drinking alcohol will make you do things that are not in some way already part of who you are. Quinn makes an essentialist argument about Mr. Turner's "nature", but to believe her story is to believe that if we drink enough, we will do things that are foreign or alien to us. Some years ago we took away that argument with regard to drunk driving, and we are now well on our way to doing so in cases of sexual assault.

Interestingly, another letter ostensibly written on Mr. Turner's behalf appears to make the same point:
From scientific evidence I have studied during my education and from my experience, alcohol is a depressant and a chemical that can release inhibition and magnify both positive and negative personality traits, something I saw too often and too negatively in the Emergency Department. It is not however a substance that dramatically changes someone’s intrinsic personality traits, suddenly altering someone from being mild mannered to criminalistics. 
Full disclosure: I know the author of this letter as a colleague. I have not spoken to him about this case, nor do I know his views beyond this particular quote.
The recent outrage over the case has centered around the sentence given to Mr. Turner: likely three months' jail time, plus a requirement that he register as a sex offender for the rest of his life (in addition to the loss of his position as Stanford and, as has been reported in some places, a lifetime ban from the US Olympic swim team to which he had aspired). Here there is a broad gulf of opinion, with supporters of the victim claiming that the sentence is far too light (and now calling for a recall of the judge in the case) while Turner's family and friends argue that it is in fact too much. Here again Judge Quinn's letter is illustrative:
I believe a prison term will serve no useful purpose in Brock’s case. He is forever changed by the events of that night. Judge please consider other options to prison — options which will serve the purpose for which a sentence is imposed, and options which will leave a future for this very scared young man. Probation could include heavy reporting requirements, counselling, community service in multiple ways, including speaking out about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption, college partying, and the “hook-up” culture on college campuses throughout the United States.
If you read the victim's statement (linked above) carefully, you will note some convergence here. The victim doesn't was Turner to "rot in jail". She is also not particularly interested in how frightened or scared he is about his own future. What she wants, more than anything, is acknowledgement that her narrative is legitimate and real. She is frustrated that Turner, and his supporters, seem unwilling to accept that there is another story here, another way of understanding what happened.

In that sense, Judge Quinn is right about one thing: prison time will not, in itself, help Mr. Turner very much. As retribution three months is quite light, but retribution isn't the point here. In terms of rehabilitation - changing his heart - prison is a terrible tool, and likely to have very little if any affect.

Quinn's call for probation with community service, however, misses the mark. Read the victim's statement carefully and you can see that what her narrative demands is in fact far harder than prison, far more difficult than talking to college students about the dangers of drinking and partying. It demands not only acknowledging but embracing the very real and terrible pain he caused, and the fact that he himself caused it through decisions he made. It insists that he face that squarely, not hiding behind alcohol or youthful indiscretion or anything else - that he take the full weight of his sin upon himself, hold it and accept it as part of himself.

As the Christian church (among many other faith traditions) has been teaching for thousands of years, there is no other way to receive true forgiveness and peace than to first embrace the sin. It is an incredibly painful process, far worse than simply spending a few months in prison. It is so painful, in fact, that many spend their whole lives running from it. It is a path that no court, no government, can mandate; only Mr. Turner himself can choose it.

However "broken" his friends and family claim that he is, we know that he has not yet chosen that path. He has made no statement indicating anything other than his "alcohol-made-me-do-it" story. He continues his legal battle to appeal his conviction. To all outwards appearances, he is as convinced as ever that he did very little wrong. He is not ready to own his victim's pain and her story.

I do not know Mr. Turner or his family, but they appear determined to fight with all of the tools available to "free" their son from the punishments imposed upon him - punishments which will make his life more difficult, but which will not in themselves change his heart. That path will always be open to him, and we can hope that someday he takes it. Until then, this story will continue to be only a tragedy, and Mr. Turner both a despised and pitied figure in it.

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