Linda Martín Alcoff
Director of Women’s Studies
The following was written for the inaugural event for the Institute for the Study of the Judiciary, Politics and the Media at Syracuse University, September 2006.
The Duke Lacrosse team scandal continues to raise heated debates, but hidden within much of the political and legal commentary are some important epistemological issues that need to be brought forward. I want to address those here.
First, we should separate out the two distinct realms of discourse that are operative in this scandal: the formal legal one, from the informal public one. Each realm has different standards of judgment, and plays a different role. The formal, legal realm is organized to determine the legal guilt of innocence of the individuals accused, while it should be clear that the public realm–that diffuse and loose amalgam of both formal and informal communications–cannot determine individual legal guilt or innocence. First, because it is not privy to all the facts (secrets can still be kept, even in these days of hyper-surveillance), and second, because the public realm of discourse is subject to the influence of various media which is in the business of selling stories. Almost everyone today understands that media reports of all sorts are edited, even when they are upholding the most scrupulous of journalistic standards.
We should take the public realm of discourse not as a court of law, then, but as a cultural site, and in analyzing it we should look not only at what is said but who is saying it, who is being given credibility, who is not, and what are the narratives on offer for making sense of the facts. Narratives are like theories, generally with some historical content, which are used to make sense of new events and to bring order to complicated facts. It is neither possible nor desirable for us to completely dispense with the use of narratives in judging new events: when synagogues are defaced, we interpret this understandably and rightly in the context of the history of anti-semitism, when a black man is dragged behind a truck until he is dead, this event is connected to a history of lynching and antiblack racism. When George Bush speaks before the U.N. on the topic of freedom, his speech is interpreted through the recent history of US military initiatives. Such historical narratives do not tell us everything we need to know about the new case or new claim, but they tell us some of what we need to know to understand the new event.
However, there are clearly better and worse narratives, even true and false narratives. For example, the narrative of black male sexual aggression against white women was a false narrative. That narrative played a role in the public’s willingness to condemn the Scottsboro Boys in 1930’s Alabama, a case that columnist Nicholas Kristof likens to the Duke scandal, but in the Scottboro case the narrative was actually historically inaccurate. It was simply a method used to maintain Jim Crow segregation and to terrorize African Americans from asserting their legal rights.
There are three main narratives being invoked in the Duke case, two false and one true, in my view. One of the false narratives is relatively old, and the other two narratives–one false and one true–are quite recent. Perhaps the most lasting significance of this case will be its effects on these narratives, and thus what I find most interesting about the public realm of discourse over Duke is to see how these narratives are being fought over, and by whom.
One narrative is that sex workers lie. Sex workers are generally not given epistemic credibility, by the courts, the police, or the public. They are seen as morally debased, or as strategic opportunists who have had to lie so much to make a living that they have forgotten how to be honest, or as human refuse too ignorant to have a conscience. Today, more people now know such claims to be distortions at best. More people now know–perhaps because of the exposes on human trafficking, perhaps because of sex worker organizations themselves that have articulated their political rights, perhaps because of feminism–that sex workers are a variegated group of people, sometimes quite well educated, and sometimes aware of their choices and risks. It is a fairly new event that a sex worker would be given credibility by feminists, by women’s fashion magazines, by mainstream African American media, even by some of the general public media. So the initial credibility given this woman complainant was interesting to me in this regard. Now I fear that the collapse of the legal case will be used to re-consolidate the older narrative that epistemically discredits all sex workers once again. But initially, the credibility that was being given an African American, working-class sex worker was evidence of a historic shifting away from previous practices in the public domain.
The second narrative under contestation concerns the history of privileged white men at elite universities who are involved in collective high status activities like sports and fraternities. This narrative–much newer, much less widely accepted–is that such groups sometimes abuse their status and power to break laws, both small ones and more serious ones. Is this narrative relevant here? The Duke Lacrosse team was organized very much like a fraternity, with most of the team living together and apart from the rest of the campus. The facts that are not in dispute here are that the team members hired sex workers for group entertainment, that they asked for racially specific types of sex workers (not black, as it turns out), that some of them referred during the evening to the sex workers as niggers and bitches, that one shouted out to a sex worker (as heard by a neighbor) “Hey bitch, thank your grandpa for your nice cotton shirt,” that one said to a sex worker that he was going to shove a broomstick up her, and that another one sent around a sick email professing his intention to rape, kill, and skin the sex workers. Those are the facts that are not in dispute. Also not in dispute is the fact that the Duke Lacrosse team has violated laws systematically over at least the past 5 years, becoming notorious among the administration for boorish behavior, such as public urination and hitting golf balls at buildings.
An almost uniform set of white columnists in the mainstream media have been arguing vociferously that the narrative about privileged white guys abusing their status is wrong, irrelevant, a “rush to judgment” (David Brooks), an unfair stereotype (Nicholas Kristof), a social prejudice. I would argue otherwise; it is both a true narrative and a relevant narrative to this case, even though it obviously does not establish the Lacrosse players guilt in regard to rape. Clearly, the list of actions given above coheres with the narrative of sports team members given license by their institutions to harass and abuse people, especially racially and sexually. We need more empirical studies of team sexual behavior in elite schools, but there is already a body of work that confirms that the tendency exists.
The third narrative involved here is the narrative about the so-called victim culture, in which people (especially white women and people of color) desire to be victims, to “wallow” in victimhood, and so on. Some have argued in this case that the commentators from the African American community who are condemning the Lacrosse players are driven by a strong self-identification as victims, or the desire to perpetuate their status in the public mind as victims. This narrative, I suggest, is quite false, and obviously self-serving to those who would rather not have their boat rocked by groups demanding social change. African Americans, in my experience, do not like being called “nigger-bitches.” Women do not want to be raped or threatened with rape by broomsticks. No one in their right mind really wants either to be a victim, or to be reminded of their victimization. In our highly individualistic, competitive society, to be a victim is actually to be vilified as weak, as not strong enough to have avoided the victimization, as not hardy enough to swallow one’s victimization in silence. Moreover, it is quite humiliating to be known publicly as having been victimized racially, or sexually. There are a lot of disincentives against reporting one’s victimization, as evidenced by the 80% (according to the FBI) of rape victims who never report.
(There are no doubt more narratives than those I am listing, but I have to keep this short.)
The point of this argument, then, is that narratives are not irrelevant to the process of trying to make sense of new events. No matter how this legal case turns out, those who have raised these and other narratives, contesting some and supporting others, have engaged in good epistemic practices.
However, there are two things that all of us who are engaged in the public realm of discourse need to do in order to improve the epistemic practices in regard to narratives: (1) understand more clearly the limits of narrative in determining, for example, the legal guilt of innocence of a particular defendant; and (2) instead of condemning all narratives wholesale we need to distinguish between better and worse, true and false narratives, criticizing those that still hold sway despite their inaccuracy. There’s knowledge, and then there’s myth, and in the public discussion over the Duke case, there has been plenty of both.