So, one more post about the reaction to this whole Fritzl thing. This ought to be the last though, I think. Having reminded several people I’ve talked to about this news that yes, sex without explicit1 and free2 consent is rape, and weasling out of calling it such is just perpetuating this weird social attitude that while rape is not okay, we don’t necessarily have to condemn it explicitely. As you can imagine, the internal cognitive dissonance of this self-contradictory position makes it pretty funny to even write it down, let alone say it out loud.
One objection I’ve repeatedly heard (although fortunately not yet from people whose opinions I trust and value on this sort of matter) is that rape is not a term that is okay for public discussion. I pushed on this a bit harder and was told we should use the term “non-consensual sex” in the public arena. Why? While rape is a term that covers an emotive subject, it’s not inherently offensive, the word itself has no religious or cultural bias, and there are no strong taboos associated with it. Every bit of revoltion we feel when we hear the word rape is directly merited by the concept. What’s more, I feel that “sex” implies consentuality. The term “non-consensual sex” seems about as appropriate for rape as “non-violent violence” does for mental abuse. I pushed further for clarification about why rape is so objectionable a word to use. Apparently rape is “impolite.” And that one word explained everything I needed to know.
When we talk about politeness, we can be referring to a few different negative behaviour guidelines rolled up into one confusing word that is drilled into our skulls from a young age. Here are the ideas incorporated into the word that I’ve identified:
- Avoiding hegemonistic attitudes towards others, such as various types of discrimination or bullying.
- Avoiding embarassing yourself or others.
- Avoiding cultural taboos.
- Avoiding controversial or challenging topics.
Notice that the operative word here is to “avoid”, not “oppose”. Politeness makes no value judgements- which is exactly why it is an insufficient basis for social interaction.
A quick glance at these bullet points should point out where the cognitive dissonance in our attitude to politeness. We know that it’s impolite to discriminate or dominate people, but strict politeness also ties our hands from challenging people with assumptions that the feelings that lead to discrimination are appropriate to act on.
If there’s any part of politeness that can be safely dropped, it’s the assumption that controversy is counterproductive. Because it’s completely wrong- if managed well, controversy forces us to re-evaluate our opinions based on evidence and outlook on what kind of society we want to live in.
1Please note that “explicit consent” doesn’t mean “spoken consent”. It just has to be clear to all parties that each person involved is enthusiastic about the idea for the duration.
2I’m using “free” in the sense of “speak freely”, ie. without fear of consequences. I’ll probably follow these two up in more detail later.