The Problem of Generalization

Imagine this: at an Ivy League school in the next few months, a girl is raped at a frat party.  She brings the matter to the attention to her college’s administrators, but is upset by the university’s lack of response, so she turns to journalism the help her tell her silenced story.  A reputable news source contacts the girl, thoroughly vets her story, determines that there is nothing to doubt in the girl’s testimony, and publishes her account.  Soon, the story has the attention of practically the entire nation, inciting controversy, and intense debate.  Angry demands for the young man’s expulsion and arrest will fly thick and fast, as will accusations that the girl “was asking for it” or “didn’t act smart” that night.  And among it all, millions of Americans will rally around a war cry: “Remember that UVA girl and the Rolling Stone article?”

As generic and made up as the story I’ve just told might be, it’s not at all hard to imagine something like this happening in the near future.  We’ve seen this before in cases of sexual abuse, doubts cast on the woman’s credibility either by attacking her character or referencing ludicrously uncommon cases of false rape accusations.  This, most people realize, is a problem because it makes young women who have been sexually assaulted less likely to come forward with their stories.  After all, who on earth would want to add the trauma of having their character attacked on a nationally to the trauma of dealing with sexual assault?

These kinds of generalizations are also a problem in and of themselves, however.  The judging of a group by the actions of one of its members is a powerful tool of oppression.  To take a mundane example, imagine you go to two mechanics, one man and one woman, and both massively botch the job.  To correct these mistakes you must once again take your car to a mechanic, and find yourself once again choosing between a man and a woman who have exactly the same qualifications.  It’s easy to imagine a friend of yours advising you to choose the man, arguing “remember the last time you went with a woman mechanic?”

In a more nationally important example, imagine that in 8 or so years a black man ran for president.  It’s not hard to imagine certain American voices that were opposed to Obama’s presidency saying, “remember the last time we tried a black president?”  No one, though, when Barack Obama first ran for president, ever argued “Remember James Buchanan?  Maybe it’s high time we elected someone other than a white man.” 

In both this case and the case of the female mechanic, the mistakes of a single individual are taken as indicative of the entire groups inability to perform, regardless of the performance or ability of other members in the group.  In other words, these generalizations implicitly say “your kind doesn’t belong here” or “you aren’t fit to do that.”

Applying these generalizations to women in courtrooms fighting for justice after being sexually abused is both terrifying and despicable.  Doing so tells women, “you don’t belong here, this is not what you do, not your place,” the underlying message of which is: “you are not fit to fight back.”  This is simply another way of saying “you are supposed to sit there and take it.”

Normally I try to end these blog posts with a powerful line of my own advocating change, but those last two phrases were chilling enough, so instead I’ll just repeat them.  This is what we are telling victims of sexual assault when we throw the lies of fake victims in their face as they try to come forward and seek justice.

You are not supposed to fight back.

You are supposed to sit there and take it.