There is a difference between blaming the victim and exhorting someone to use some common sense to avoid becoming a victim.
But it seems hardly anyone in our ultra-sensitive, ultra-politically correct world is able or willing to accept that difference.
Hence the rain of abuse from the Twitterverse and other social media on tennis star Serena Williams for questioning the judgment of a 16-year-old girl from Steubenville, Ohio, who got roaring drunk at a party last August and ended up being raped by two high-school football players. The two boys, 16 at the time of the crime, were convicted in March in juvenile court of rape of a minor.
In a brief segment of a lengthy interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Williams called the perpetrators “stupid,” but also said, “I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don’t take drinks from other people … She shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.”
Williams has since issue the obligatory craven apology. And it is worth mentioning at the start that she could have used a bit of common sense herself. She, like the rest of us, doesn’t know what the victim’s parents taught her, or tried to teach her. She doesn’t know if this young girl was drunk for the first time or if this was a regular event.
And, as is often the case, star athletes should probably stick to being star athletes. They should not expect to be experts on social issues.
That said, those who piled on immediately after the interview was published ought to do some apologizing too. The point Williams was trying to make was that when we put ourselves in dangerous, volatile situations and cloud our minds with drink or drugs, bad things are likely to happen. That message ought to be embraced, not denounced.
This Tweet was fairly typical: “(I)f ‘I’m not blaming the girl, but…’ exits your mouth, stop there. There is no ‘but’.”
Oh, yes there is.
This is not (or should not) be a debate over whether what the boys did was wrong. They committed a crime. They are the ones to blame – not the victim – and are justifiably being punished for it.
But it is not blaming the victim to ask, “What were you thinking?” Nor is it placing blame to tell her in the strongest possible terms not to put herself in those circumstances again. Nor is it blaming her to ground her for a few months, to help a painful lesson sink in.
Yes, the first duty to any victim is to help him or her recover from the damage caused by an attack, but it is neither loving nor sensitive to ignore bad judgment that may have played a role in it.
It is not the least bit loving or sensitive to send a family member out to walk through a high-crime neighborhood late at night because, you know, this is America and we have the right to walk wherever we want to walk. The loving, sensitive thing to do is block the door.
Yes, of course we have that right. But it is foolish to ignore reality to exercise that right. If we are attacked by criminals, they are to blame for committing illegal acts. But that doesn’t mean we, or anybody, should take a walk through the same neighborhood the next night. We would, I hope, call somebody crazy who did that time and again.
You have a right to enter a pedestrian crosswalk on a dead run if you want without looking to see if there is any oncoming traffic. Any motorist who hit you would automatically be at fault. But you would be just as hurt or dead no matter who is blamed. And it would not be blaming the victim to say you were stupid – that you could have avoided a lot of pain and suffering by using some common sense.
Yes, in a perfect world, a kid should be able to go to a party, get drunk and have no ill effects other than a headache in the morning. Perhaps that is all that happens some of the time at teen drinking parties.
But – here’s that “but” again – these are very high-risk events. Such parties are illegal for a reason. Teens are notorious for lacking good judgment and self control. Adding a drug like alcohol makes it much worse. So when something like rape happens, it is a terrible tragedy, but it should not be a shock to anyone.
That is really all Serena Williams was trying to say. Sending a couple of boys to prison for criminal acts brings a measure of justice, but it cannot undo the damage they inflicted on a teen girl, and on their own futures. The only way to do that would have been to avoid it in the first place.
Politicians are fond of saying, “If it saves only one life, it’s worth it,” when they want to take a lot more of your money in a quest to make the world safer.
It doesn’t cost anything to say what Serena Williams said. And if we want to protect those we love – especially those who are not mature enough to make wise decisions on their own – it needs to be said.
Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.