Polanski furor just a Culture War about symbols, rather than realities?

Should the film director Roman Polanski be extradited to the US over his statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles in March 1977? It’s a potentially interesting legal question. But it’s not the question that is driving the transatlantic furore that followed Polanski’s arrest and imprisonment in Switzerland over the weekend. Instead, various political prejudices and unresolved battles are being projected on to L’Affaire Polanski, robbing it of its specific legal complexities and turning it into the site of a proxy Culture War in which clapped-out conservatives and disoriented liberals are hurling intellectual (and not-so-intellectual) hand grenades at one another. And I find both sides pretty revolting. –Brendan O’Neill

This article, by the editor of Spiked, says it is, and I think it’s getting at some key pieces of it.  There may be critics of Polanski who are using him as a symbol of the excesses of the 60s.  I think the description of where the collusion with Polanski’s sex offenses on the part of more strident liberals and members of the European elite is coming from is quite accurate.

When it comes to my criticism of those elites over the last two posts, however, I don’t think you can stretch what I’m saying to an attack on the 60s, and I don’t know how good of a fit that is of those who are glad to see Polanski finally face justice for what he did.  Does it describe the members of the Academy Awards audience who refused to applaud Polanski when he received his award?

Wait.  I had heard reference to these individuals, but now I’m unable to find any reference to any lack of applause to Polanski when he received the Best Director award in 2003 for The Pianist.  There were references to people who refused to applaud Elia Kazan for his Lifetime Achievement Award due to his mentioning Hollywood people he thought were communists in the 1950s that resulted in the studios black listing them, but nobody apparently stayed in their seats when Polanski was honored for his work.

So, instead of speaking of the armed camps O’Neill wants to frame this as, I’m the guy sitting aside from them, pointing out that Polanski may well be a great artist (his stuff doesn’t appeal to me, much, but that’s not really his fault), and certainly has been victimized by the Holocaust and the Manson Family. I can sympathize about those things and give them full weight. But not one of those things justify his rape of Samantha Gailey in one iota, nor do they mitigate his escaping the consequences of his actions for thirty years. I don’t know of any child molesters who weren’t victimized sexually as children. We don’t accept that their previous victimization justifies their victimization of others — we all learned “two wrongs don’t make a right” before we were five years old, didn’t we?  None of which has anything to do with rejecting the culture of the 60s (I very much enjoy 60s protest music, even though I disagree with most of what it was trying to say), unless the culture of the 60s was nothing more nor less than rejecting the idea that there is anything wrong or that nobody should be held accountable for their behavior.

I think there are some problems reflected in Polanski’s defenders that reflect very much on the problems we have with holding sex offenders accountable right down at the human level:

We want to separate ourselves from SOs, and make them very different, other and alien.  We certainly don’t want anybody to think that we might be or sympathize with SOs.  So we demonize them and talk about all the mean things we would want to do to them as a way of showing how much they aren’t like us.

And then we find out that they are actually more like us than the cardboard cut-outs we created above.  We are faced with someone we know, respect, like, love and care about who has done something horrific.  This gives us two options.  We can admit that we were wrong, and adjust the paradigm we’ve created to acknowledge that SOs are much closer to us than we thought.

Or we can take a trip down the River of Denial and decide that our respected person couldn’t possibly be an SO.  Don’t you know that they’ve got horns on top of their head, and long tails, and that you can tell them just by looking?  Our respected person doesn’t look anything like an SO.  So we can attack those who are accusing them — what’s wrong with a little victim-blaming if it helps us maintain our denial?  They’re lying, or overly sensitive, or they just misunderstood what was going on.  There’s a simple, logical explanation about why it couldn’t possibly be the case that our respected person has done something wrong.  They’re too much like us to have done that.

Oh, and then there’s the problem if we’ve actually done, or wanted to do, something not entirely dislike what our respected person is accused of doing.  Pornography is widely popular, and includes many stories, photographs and videos portraying fantasies about sex with young girls, and where women don’t exactly consent to the sex right from the start — up to and including child porn and rape and snuff porn.  The physical attributes that men are sexually attracted to are present in teen-aged girls, and we are exposed to thousands and thousands of sexualized images of them without even resorting to the world of porn.  This doesn’t mean that all, many or most men have or will engage in any kind of sex offense, but the reality is that far more people have been engaged in not-entirely-consensual sexual situations than anybody should be comfortable with.

So, being faced with accusation of doing something totally horrific (which we’ve fantasized about doing, or have done things similar to) by someone we like, respect, love or care about, particularly if the accusations are being made by people we dislike (or who remind us of people we dislike), which challenge our ideas that keep us safe and separated from evil and obvious SOs, it’s easier to side with the SO, condemn and attack the victim and the accusers, and do our best to see to it that the SOs are not held accountable for their actions.

All very understandable.  All very human.  All very insidiously evil and destructive.  And all-pervasive.

So, if this is the case, why does anybody ever stand up for victims of sexual abuse?  Well, there is the other side of the question.  Either the victim is someone close to you, or there is enough evidence that makes any effort to deny what happened ridiculous.  This, then, requires turning the accused person into the cardboard cut-out stereotypical SO.  It helps if they have horns and a tail, or the metaphorical equivalents, and then everybody can dog-pile all of their abuse on this person, label them, and feel totally justified in every wrong thing they want to do with them, including assaults, torture and even murder.

Just as understandable.  Just as human.  Just as insidiously evil, destructive and all-pervasive.

Facing this at a personal level is a whole lot harder than dealing with this penny-ante case of Roman Polanski and Samantha Gailey thirty years ago.  What if it’s your son and your sister, or your best friend and some sexualized minority girl that you secretly think is quite hot?

I think O’Neill is correct that this is a culture war.  But he’s misidentified the sides in this war, and he’s misidentified the real battleground.  It’s not some tidy, sterile question of conservatives who still can’t deal with long-hair on boys and sexual permissiveness, or of liberal elites who want to give one of their own a pass.  It’s a very personal, very difficult, very immediate question of what do each of us do to excuse and perpetuate sexual abuse, and what price are we individually willing to pay to bring that to a halt.  Are we prepared to admit that we contribute to the objectification and sexualization of children and adults with our time, attention, fantasies and money?  Are we prepared to admit to and  give up the gratification and excitement we get from that objectification and sexualization, or the power we gain by sexualizing and objectifying ourselves or others?

My experience tells me that very few people are prepared to do such things without being forced to.  Are you one of them?

6 thoughts on “Polanski furor just a Culture War about symbols, rather than realities?

  1. Trying to translate someone’s feedback from FB into a more flowing form that I can respond to more easily:

    To be honest – I didn’t realize that was your article. It was so well written that I’d assumed it was a professional pundit. I apologize. Questions answered:

    Does it describe the members of the Academy Awards audience who refused to applaud Polanski when he received his award?

    Urban myth. They all applauded politely, they didn’t all stand.

    we all learned “two wrongs don’t make a right” before we were five years old, didn’t we?

    No, that’s a cultural assumption overall. the influx of legal immigants who become citizens keep this from being a uniform “all” statement.

    Don’t you know that they’ve got horns on top of their head, and long tails, and that you can tell them just by looking?

    I’m taking this as a rhetorical figure of speech for purposes of establishing a point through irony and ridicule.

    what’s wrong with a little victim-blaming if it helps us maintain our denial?

    Another figure of speech question, part of the figure of speech which builds emphasis through repetition.
    The paragraph and the following ones do establish the quandry of ego-protection of the self-image through demonization of others. Taking an opponent’s humanity away is a necessary prelude for the average person before killing. Very common in wartime settings.

    So, if this is the case, why does anybody ever stand up for victims of sexual abuse?

    Possibly, in addition to your discussion, there is that while people indulge their emotions in private (pornography), they use their logical faculties in public. A society that loses this separation is beginning to die morally. Also there is species preservation. The urge to indulge lusts is balanced genetically by the urge to protect genetic offspring as identified by “us”. normally “us” is identified by sharing genetics, but society works hard to extend that. People such as Jesus, who redefine “family” in non-genetic lines are very dangerous in this regard, often transforming entire societies.

  2. (continued from above)

    What if its your son and your sister, or your best friend and some sexualized minority girl that you secretly think is quite hot?

    personalized question. personalized answer. I follow the law. feelings in my experience, cannot be controlled, only managed when present. thoughts, actions, both can be controlled. thus, just because a feeling occurs doesn’t mean that it need be acted on, or even considered. In application, it means that lust is a choice. The urge may come, but is immediately rejected, as if the mind were guarded by a sharp two-edged sword, unable to prevent things from coming toward the mind, but able to discern and refuse entry to the ones that have been declared undesirable or unhealthy. But that’s me. Your question is probably valid for people who aren’t fanatical about self mind control.

    It’s a very personal, very difficult, very immediate question of what do each of us do to excuse and perpetuate sexual abuse, and what price are we individually willing to pay to bring that to a halt.

    Not a question, but this is the single most profound and essential statement of the piece. All questions of morality must come down to each individual. the collective choices are what determine the culture’s morality.

    Are we prepared to admit that we contribute to the objectification and sexualization of children and adults with our time, attention, fantasies and money?

    While I don’t, statistically the American culture overall has begun to slip into this moral morass. What was only whispered in private is glorified in public and is desensitizing over-all. In an effort to create a negative-feedback control in the absence of individual self-control, pariahs like Polanski are sacrificed to still the inner demons. Sexual offense are now punished for the life of the individual, with no forgiveness or reprieve after a prison sentence, with registries and pop psychology as to why they are now forever tainted, helping to give public lepers to remind people of why they must restrain themselves. As a culture, overall, we pander to the cult of Self and withhold individual responsibility in school systems. Everyone can be on the team, regardless of ability, for example.

  3. (part 3 of 3, and then I’ll respond)

    Are we prepared to admit to and give up the gratification and excitement we get from that objectification and sexualization, or the power we gain by sexualizing and objectifying ourselves or others?

    As a society? Statistics say “no”.

    My experience tells me that very few people are prepared to do such things without being forced to. Are you one of them?

    I thank God through Christ Jesus that I’m the exception to the statistics. Without my inner core of spirit, it is likely that I’d be just like any other born dead in sin.

  4. (carried over from FB)

    1 — Well, thanks. There are worse things than being confused with a professional.

    Perhaps that’s what I had heard about — people who didn’t stand. There was some reduction of approval that I heard about, but, when I tried to find out exactly what through my google-fu, I couldn’t find anything.

    That it’s not universal in application is quite obvious. Nothing much is really universal. But that section is mostly appealing to those who were taught the precept, but don’t see how they aren’t applying it.

    And yeah, that was a rhetorical device. I’m making fun of some of the mistaken assumptions people make, and some of the lame excuses people make. A bit of hyperbole for the sake of attention.

  5. (Finally, a fresh response).

    2 — That wasn’t exactly where I was going with that direction, but I think it gets pretty close. My point was to bring this question from the very-arms-length perspective to something more immediate and personal. What you’ve said indicates that this is something you’ve thought about at length and have a strategy for — one that I recommend.

    Not infrequently, I see people bring these questions down to the very personal as a way of justifying excess on whichever side they would choose it. I wanted to bring it down there, and then challenge the excesses. Right and wrong don’t change based on how we feel about them. People don’t get excused for committing a crime because they were feeling bad — they’re held accountable for their choices.

    Feelings are choices. Not that we get to choose our triggers or when they are hit, any more than we get to choose if the air outside feels hot or cold. But we can choose how we respond when those triggers are hit, just like we can choose to wear a coat, or something cooler, and to drink something hot or cold. We have a right to our feelings, but we have responsibility for our choices.

    And you managed to jump right into the heart of my point. Well done. The excesses to either excuse away or demonize are just tactics to distance ourselves emotionally from the realities of abuse. My goal is to help people get rid of that distance and see those realities up front and center. They don’t get uglier by looking at them — they get uglier by hiding from them.

    Your last two sentences brought to mind the criticism made of the recent banking collapses, that government guarantees created a situation of socialized risk and personalized gain. What you’re saying (if I’m getting your point) is that we have created a society in which individuals get all the benefits of “doing their own thing,” without having to face the responsibility for their actions when there are costs to their choices. Hmm.

    3 — Yeah, your comment is consistent with my experience as well. But, if people are faced with the question directly, they might answer it differently.

    I’m not surprised that you’re the one person to read this all the way through and respond. I’m trying to figure out how to reach the audience I need to with this stuff.

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