The confusion of politeness

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.

3 Responses

  1. Hiya Ari,

    I have been a faithful (lurking) member at your blog since it started and you are a very welcome breath of fresh air on the NZ blogging scene. I don’t have time to write a reply that does this justice right now, but wanted to quickly share my initial thoughts on this topic which is this:

    The word “rape” (for me) is just too inadequate – too “small” of a word to encompass a thing (or multitude of things) which can effect recipients (both female and male) in such a profoundly devastating and long-lasting way and every level of their mind/body/soul.

    Readers might be interested to tune in to a series running on BBC world this week (early in the morning on TV1, or on Sky if you are lucky enough to have it) which opens up a broader global discussion about “rape” called:

    Woman on the Frontline:

    Scoop article here also:

    I watched the Congo episode (early) this morning and was struck by their interview footage of Dr. Mukwege who says that “sex has done as much injury as bombs.” and went on to say (the part that is relevant to my point) that the word “rape” just does not begin to cover what woman go through.

    I know this has been true for my own experiences of sexual violation in this life, where the damage done to me went so far beyond the act of “non-consensual intercourse” that the word “rape” in so many ways minimalised my personal experience.

    I hope this makes sense and you will understand me when I say that this word is a feeble description of what this guy Fritzl has done.

    Dr. Mukwege says we “need a new word” to describe rape and I agree with him.

    I would like to hear some discussion on what this “new word” might be.


  2. Zana, I absolutely agree with you that the using word “rape” is the least we can do for these terrible abuses, but you know what? An avalanche needs many small rocks, and objecting to censorship of the word “rape” is the first that has to fall.

    The only thing I can think of to address your concern is what I already try to do: qualify the level of abuse with as many other appropriate words as we can, to show that rape overlaps with so many other abuses. There’s not just rape in marriage, there’s sexual coercion, there’s the assumption of sexual ownership, (now we’re married you’re bought and paid for, how can it be rape?) there’s power abuse, child abuse, prostitution driven by economic inequality, emotional blackmail, violent rape, homocidal rape… (ie. rape so violent it kills the victim) and yet I agree that all of those words are simply inadequate to describe the digusting attitudes of entitlement and domination that pervade the act of rape. They are officious and clumsy.

    Fritzl personally seems to be guilty of sexual ownership, sexual coercion, power abuse, child abuse, incestuous relationship damage, extreme neglect, drug-assisted rape, illegal detention, and of course that’s aside from the elaborate lie he constructed to keep it all under control. He doesn’t even acknowledge any of it as his fault- it was his urges that made him do it he says, which adds the total failure of personal responsibility to the list.

    The congo rape epidemic is so tragic it almost depresses me into not knowing where to begin, and I have to admit, I have been aiming this blog at a very mainstream audience (partially trying to engage my fellow men in a gender discussion) and think I will have to work up to things like the congo rape epidemic. I mean, there are still several key feminist ideas left to explain, (we haven’t even gotten into victim-blame, for instance, or false cries of “victimisation”) not to mention I have more I want to say on men’s issue and convergence of masculism and feminism!

    I have no problem expanding to questions in comments, and I’d welcome any suggestions and personal views on the topics I broach.

  3. […] Ari on The confusion of politene…zANavAShi on The confusion of politene…We’re all in t… on […]

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