Think of our digital commons — the social media through which we advertise our beliefs under the guise of reasoned conversation — as a megaphone inside a bubble. Most people use the megaphone to opine and rant and pass stories around, but the noise rarely leaves the bubble of the people they follow — the people like them. It’s why the most intemperate voices on the political spectrum are so sure they’re right. Because they never hear anything outside their bubble, their bubble becomes the world.
The bubble is never the world — only what you wish the world were. Every so often, though, the bubble pops and the message is suddenly heard by everyone, for better or for worse.
I’m thinking of the epic 7,244-word statement by the 23-year-old victim in the Stanford University rape trial, read at the sentencing of her attacker last week. I’m also thinking of the letter written by Dan Turner, the father of defendant Brock Turner, to Santa Clara County Superior Court judge Aaron Persky. In these two pieces of prose, one traumatized and lucid, the other blinded by love and privilege, we see opposing visions of what sexual assault means. To the victim, it’s an event that has derailed every aspect of her life, forever. To her attacker’s dad, it’s “20 minutes of action” for which his son shouldn’t have to pay too long.
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In the pre-Internet days, these statements might have remained little-known matters of court record. But in 2016, they feed into separate bubbles of online social discourse, one parsing issues of consent and gender inequities and the other reflecting a neurotic, angry maleness that sees women as the enemy. Jezebel Nation vs. Bro Culture. The two yell at each other and their most extreme adherents aren’t very interested in listening, but what has happened this past week is instructive. The two statements, one agonized and the other tone-deaf, burst their respective bubbles and went viral. Everyone heard them. And just about everyone listened harder, and with more care, to the victim.
If you think that’s always the case, you’re less aware than you should ever be of the ways sexual assault victims are shamed into silence, of how their attackers — the wealthy and white ones, anyway — are protected by institutional infrastructures and cultural assumptions about gender and behavior. The victim’s statement — downloaded millions of times since being posted on BuzzFeed last week — is a masterpiece of rhetoric; it needs to be read by every high school and college student, especially the boys and the men, because it seeks out and destroys every specious argument that somehow the woman in question “brought it on herself” and therefore “deserved it.”
The victim is eloquent, calmly furious, a gifted writer. Her attacker’s father isn’t. Dan Turner’s statement expresses no remorse or sympathy for the woman his son assaulted and, in pleading for leniency from the judge, bemoans Brock Turner’s loss of interest in eating rib-eye steak. He blames college drinking culture (and he has a point) but absolves the son of any individual agency or responsibility for his actions: In the father’s eyes, his kid is the victim. It’s pretty clear that in saying “20 minutes of action,” Dan Turner meant a person’s actions in the general rather than sexual sense, but he still phrased it for maximum misunderstanding and outrage.
(Just to be clear: As decided by the jury in the case, “20 minutes of action” means that Brock Turner, a Stanford freshman at the time, was found sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and tried to run away when he was caught by two passersby.)
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What has compounded the anger, of course, is Judge Persky’s sentencing of the younger Turner to six months in prison, widely and accurately perceived as “a slap on the wrist.” An article in the Daily Mail Wednesday reported that two months have already been shaved off that sentence due to good behavior “credits.” There are additional facts to boil the blood, if you so choose. Persky is a Stanford alumnus. Turner is a collegiate swimming champion; Persky was the captain of his lacrosse team and later helped coach the team. In his sentencing, the judge said Turner had “less moral culpability” because he was drunk. It’s almost too easy to see this as one member of an elite social stratum protecting another. If the defendant had been poor and black, let’s just say the sentencing might have gone differently.
An effort to remove the judge from the bench has been mounted, which is fair. Judge Persky has received death threats and phone calls from people hoping his children get raped, which is not. As usual, righteous anger is easily transformed by the anonymity of social media into self-righteous mob behavior, turning some people into everything they say they’re against.
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At the very least, though, the online response to the victim’s statement and widespread revulsion at Turner’s sentence represent a mass pushback against the sometimes toxic macho sentiments of too much Internet and social culture. The bully boys who plague the digital universe, wishing violence and death on women (and men) who dare to call them on their misogyny, can control the dialogue through the volume and viciousness of their power fantasies. They can exhaust reasonable people. But when you read the horrified user comments on news articles about the Stanford rape trial, you hear the reasonable majority say enough.
What does Brock Turner have to do with these bully bros? They’re all part of a spectrum of men who only understand women through their depictions in video games, online porn, and Maxim culture, and who can’t understand it when actual living, breathing women (and men) object to the objectification. They’re not all men — by a long shot, I’d like to hope — but they’re too many of them. They’re not the mainstream of video gamers but they’re the ones who scream the loudest. They lurk in the corners of online forums like Reddit. Conversely, in the world of college athletics, they can be coddled and enabled, by parents and coaches and peers, to take what they want because they’ve been told since childhood that it’s theirs.
However briefly, their bubble was burst this week. It’ll be back. Get your sons to read that victim’s statement if you want them to think and feel and respect their way beyond it.
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Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.