Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Offence isn’t the point. (On Roast Busting and Non-Apologies.)

Thanks to Willie Jackson and John Tamihere, we have a broader context for understanding the young men at the heart of Roast Busters.

For the past few years, it turns out, a group of young men in Auckland calling themselves ‘Roast Busters’ have preyed on girls and teenagers, raped and sexually assaulted them, and bragged about their activities on a facebook site. Some of the women were plied with alcohol and approached at parties and other social events. The story has blown up in NZ, and at first there were at least two groups of people to be angry with: the young men who have carried on with their crimes for years; and NZ police who have known about their crimes for years but wouldn’t prosecute because they didn’t feel they had enough evidence. I am sure many women in NZ are not surprised, on the basis of our own encounters (on behalf of ourselves or others)  with NZ police about other instances of rape and sexual assault, that the police response was underwhelming to a mind-numbing and infuriating degree.

I wish I was more surprised by the police situation, to be honest, but many of us are already familiar with the problem of their appalling treatment of such cases (over the phone, when reporting on an incident: ‘but are you sure she said no? why would she have a shower when that has probably removed any evidence? are you sure she said no?’) and general reluctance to prosecute which rests on the blatant unfairness that a traumatized victim needs to be willing to come forward (unlike for example when a television is stolen and the police step in and prosecute on behalf of the television despite the TV not having provided its own affidavit) even though there is no guarantee the re-traumatization involved in coming forward and repeating statements will be enough anyway.

Over the past 24 hours, two radio talkshow hosts (the aforementioned Willie and John) have stepped forward and volunteered themselves to be the third target of national anger about this whole situation. They ‘interviewed’ Amy, an 18 year old young woman who had been victim of the young men and – as many other commentators have already noted – proceeded to reinforce the usual sexist framing of such a topic: her clothes, her consumption of alcohol, her virginity and whether teenaged girls are promiscuous these days. They proposed that if some girls had consented then it wasn’t really rape. Etc. Awful. Beyond words.

This display of characteristic sexism on the part of these two middle aged men who pride themselves on being ‘straight talkers’ etc etc yawn yawn attracts enough attention that they are drawn into a national discussion of whether an apology is necessary. The next day, Willie Jackson apologises, kind of. He says “we have no problems apologising to Amy for causing offence.” 

And here’s the question: is this the apology demanded under these circumstances? Is offence the problem here? Or, to put it another way, if Amy wasn’t “ofen[ded]” would it have been okay?

The idea of offence, and apologies offered for causing it, make me wonder.

In another context, when we have small children, and they do something bad to another child, we say ‘apologise!’ and we expect that the child will say ‘I’m sorry for breaking your toy,’ not ‘I’m sorry if breaking your toy might have made you upset.” In the moment, we can see the cause and effect, and the central point of the interaction is not the upset, it’s the breakage. Both children, and all adults standing around them, can see the relationship has been ruptured because the first child broke the toy, not because the other child cried. The crying – the upset – of the second kid is neither here nor there in terms of the relationship between the kids; it’s a by-product, not the problem.

But somehow once people become grownups, it becomes acceptable to place a little breathing room in an apology: I’m sorry if I offended you. I’m sorry if you are offended when I dress up in a parody of your culture for Halloween. I’m sorry if you’re offended that I said people from your community are all stupid. I’m sorry if my African themed 21st party to which friends came dressed in blackface and a KKK costume offended you. I’m sorry if my comment that you’re ugly has offended you. I didn’t mean to offend you when I suggested you sounded like a slutty teenager and probably asked for it.

This kind of apology isn’t an apology because it refuses to focus on the actual site of the rupture; it attempts to deflect attention, suggesting the victim’s response is unpredictable and arbitrary, and locating the problem with the response rather than the thing to which the victim is responding. It turns an actual act or comment into a neutral entity, and places all of the emotion – and all of the responsibility for emotion – on the side of the victim. Once the emotion quietly slides to the victim end of the equation, so too does the central weight of the issue. Focusing on the response of the victim means the possible effects of the original act are rendered unknowable and therefore, because this opens up the possibility of alternative responses, the original actor is rendered potentially innocent at least because it is conceivable a ‘non-offended’ response is also possible.

(‘I’m sorry you’re offended I dressed like an Indian for Halloween.’ ‘Oh I’m not offended.’ ‘Oh great I’ve got nothing to be sorry for then – glad we cleared that up.’)

Apologizing for causing someone else’s offence is facetious because it cannot ever be truly genuine: how can one genuinely apologize – and by that I mean reflectively and absolutely take responsibility for their own wrong actions – when one suggests that the rupture in the relationship between the two people is only knowable through the outward sign of a specific response of offence? Surely taking responsibility for one’s own wrong actions necessarily involves taking the time to thoroughly consider all of the possible implications and effects and take responsibility for these as well.

(‘I’m sorry I dressed like an Indian for Halloween. I have participated in a specific form of stereotyping which has deep colonial roots and dehumanizes your people, and I can see that this thoughtless act contributes in real ways to the ongoing injustice and violence inflicted on Indigenous people.’)

Apologising for offence caused rather than for your actual behaviour renders the person making the apology incapable of repairing the relationship because the rupture is located at the end of the victim, and presumably one cannot 'make' someone feel different. Apologising for offence caused rather than for your actual behaviour is a refusal to take responsibility for your own actions and a refusal to do anything further to repair the relationship (which surely is the best possible outcome of an apology). 

[For clarity: I'm talking here about taking responsibility in a collective, relationship-focussed, sense rather than an individualistic right wing sense.]

This – this - is at the heart of the non-apology to Amy (“we have no problems apologising to Amy for causing offence”) – as if causing a specific reaction is the problem rather than their words to which she may or may not be reacting. This pattern of thinking ultimately denies there can be clarity about right and wrong, cause and effect, of the original behaviour… and it does this by leaving open the possibility that there is an plausible alternative understanding of the interaction, in which the victim does not feel aggrieved. If Amy did not feel offence – unlikely, but theoretically plausible seeing as offence is an individual emotion – they had nothing else for which to apologize.

And this – this – is at the heart of what’s wrong with how Willie and John – and some members of the NZ police force and many more - gently perpetuate rape culture. The idea that the perpetrator’s guilt depends not on the act of rape in and of itself but on the specific and provable response of the victim. According to this pervasive logic, there is always the possibility not only that Amy won’t be offended but that Amy wasn’t raped. 

If men like Willie and John took full and serious and thoughtful responsibility for their own actions ('we apologise for...'),  perhaps men like those behind Roast Busters might grow up seeing models for how they can take full and serious and thoughtful responsibility for theirs. 

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