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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Monday 15 April 2013

Rape Culture and Manufactured Consent: Hustling Success vs The Public Good


   - Ayn Rand

Being alone in a crowd, for instance.  Surely, that's an impossibility.

The rape and death of Rehtaeh Parsons has horrified and angered a nation.  Yet the reactive horror and anger is coming long after the fatal blow was struck.  There are calls for justice for the family, which is necessary - but where were these voices before justice was necessary?  The boys that raped and re-victimized Rehtaeh must face justice, but unless we plan to kill them off or merely just rape them back, that justice must be of the restorative variety.

While we focus on response to the tragedy, there's a bigger question that needs to be addressed.  How is it that these boys came to act in such an inhumane fashion in the first place?  While the RCMP is rightfully being criticized for their failure to act and the school is being chastised for a failure to recognize the problem earlier, no one else was there earlier, either.  Is justice something we consume from providers only, or something we are supposed to embody in our own daily behaviour?

And what are we doing to understand how this happened - and how similar tragedies can be avoided?

If we're serious about addressing this question, we have to get past bullet-point explanations and starfish-throwing solutions.  We need to wrap our heads around content, context and consequence of everyone's behaviour by engaging in a lot of talkfests with evidence-based experts whose opinions might rub us the wrong way and whose research might need more funding for sufficient bandwidth. 

To start, though, we have to admit to ourselves that we're coming at the big problem from the wrong angle.  Rape culture is just that - a pervasive culture that enables and forgives individuals who push the limits of what is acceptable.  Cultural problems aren't individual - they belong to all of us.  Of course, nobody teaches courses about how to rape effectively; that would be criminal.  What we do do, however, is encourage people to look out for number one and to be willing to hustle to get what they want.  The emphasis is on efficiency, not ethics.  That's not about rape - that's about free market capitalism.

What does this have to do with Ayn Rand?

While Karl Marx and Communism have gotten plenty of attention, there's been less public dialogue about Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism.  This is a shame, because a great deal of Western political thought, particularly in the US and more recently in Canada relies on the concepts of Rand's philosophy.

Rand built this system of thought on Nietzsche's contempt for systems; in her world, society is a false concept imposed on moral individuals by immoral ones.  Selfish pursuit is the way to get ahead - greed is good.  In a non-system where individual actors pursue the fulfilment of their own greed to attain happiness, balance is achieved (though balance would seem to imply middle ground - and Rand was convinced there are only two sides to every issue - one right and one wrong - and the middle was invariably evil).

So there are no such things as contradictions, middle-ground doesn't exist and pursuing one's own happiness is the only moral purpose in life. So how do we achieve happiness, according to Rand?

One would surmise from this that individual actors acting in their own interests to achieve their full market share of happiness will express their morality by letting nobody stop them from getting what they want - and that's all you need to know.

Ironically enough, Rand's most famous work, Atlas Shrugged, was published in 1957 - the same year Leon Festinger's A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance hit bookshelves.
The assumption of Objectivism (and for that matter, the free market) is that when buyers and sellers are able to transact freely, they'll come to a mutually agreeable trade value - the market price.  The problem is, not everyone wants to buy what's being sold or sell what's being sought. 

Rand was a believer in laissez-faire capitalism, but she also expressed the belief that you should go out and get what you want.  The art of "closing the deal" is anything but laissez-faire; anyone who works in sales can relate to the need to aggressively nudge a potential buyer into signing on the line which is dotted. 

Now, there are many ways you can push for the deal to be closed - you can follow the aggressive advice of Alec Baldwin; you can employ neuropsychology; you can even design products which produce uncontrolled behaviours in a potential client.  The point is, if people aren't willingly playing along in giving you what you want, don't let that stop you - there are other ways to seal the deal.  Playing the push-game works; through aggressive sales, Apple increased its sales in India by 400 per cent.  As I hear all the time, people don't care about process, so long as the end result is great.  The implication is that they don't care what else you do in life with that aggressive, go-get-'em attitude so long as their piece is delivered, cleanly.

The concept of your happiness coming as a result of harm to someone else doesn't come in to Rand's world, because she refused to recognize the notion of society.  Laissez-faire capitalism is the exact opposite of going out and aggressively getting what you want, but Rand didn't deal with that, either; instead, she positioned herself to be able to say "I'm right and you're wrong", thereby refusing to accept the contradictions of her own position.  By refusing to accept this cognitive dissonance, she was confabulating (making up a self-validating story to paper over the conflict) excuses to avoid addressing the problem.

If you're still with me, it means you're willing to accept there are such things as contradictions and that the devil is in the details.  If you were Ayn Rand (or Rob Ford, for that matter), by now you'd be upset, feel reading this was a stupid waste of time and that I'm unnecessarily complicating a simple issue of good-guy/bad-guy and the state as evil.

But you are with me, so here's where the background starts to pay off.

To put it in a slightly different way: All it takes for evil to succeed is for a few good people to do nothing.

We know this, but do nothing anyway - we're too busy, it's not really our thing, etc.  Someone else should get to that.

At least, that's what we tell ourselves.


ie - gunning the engine to catch the light
Success is seen as a road to happiness.  Success comes through hustling - nobody's going to hand you fistfuls of money, you have to go out and take it.  The success stories we admire are anything but laissez-faire.  We admire people like Steve Jobs or Stephen Harper who had the persistence and "moral toughness" to get what they wanted at any cost.  They may have had to step on a few heads to get there, but you know what they say about eggs and omelets.

By and large, we feel that it's socially acceptable to nudge people in favour of our own interests.  In fact, that's what sales is all about. We can convince ourselves we're just trying to help people obtain something they want, but the very implication of that sentiment is that vendors know what's best for the buyer. I can try to guilt you into buying a product, threaten you into buying a product or trick you into buying a product, but at the end of the day, I'm gonna make that sale. Success, after all, is what makes me happy.

Socially, we reward the hustlers with jobs, fortune, privilege and power - yet somehow don't expect that behaviour to spill over outside their field of work.  A-type personalities dominate executive positions, yet we still express shock when they get caught behaving in vile ways.  We decry bullying but in politics, sports and business, we admire and respect bullies for their success.

Stephen Harper is a bully. Steve Jobs was a bully. Michael Bay is a bully, but we don't care - if his movies make us happy. 

ie - not breaking when you see the light turn yellow.
Just as it is seen as socially acceptable to push people to get the results we want, it's also acceptable to be passive about things that benefit our own interests.  This is as true of ignoring where our eggs come from as not caring how cheap foreign imports end up on our shelves or what labour goes in to the success of our companies.  So long as you get a solid return on your investment, who cares?  Process matters less than results - the ends justify the means.  Wading into the details is something you do only when there's clearly a problem to be addressed.

There's a corollary to this, though - just like the aggressive salesfolk, there are trade offs in our own wins.  Cheap, abusive labour might be behind our imports.  The folk managing our investment portfolios might not be so scrupulous about their efforts.  The same could be could be true of other service providers.

Arthur Porter was successful, until he got caught. Adam Carroll was pretty pleased with himself, until he got caught. Chris Mazza was totally going out and taking what he wanted, until he got caught. Some aggressive ladder-climbers have behaved badly and been caught. But not all of them.

Each of these entrepreneurial folks was hustling, making money, buying goods, contributing to the economy, living happy. In short, they were doing exactly what society asks them to.  There was some benefit in what they did for those they sold their services, too - so long as the accumulated risks could be ignored.  That laissez-faire approach led to massive losses, public humiliation and the cracking of investor confidence. 

These aggressive, individually successful individuals were left to their own devices, resulting in steep and avoidable costs to the whole.

ie - tisking someone who runs a light, but nothing more; after all, it doesn't impact you.
"The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death."
     - Elie Wiesel

Ayn Rand believed there was no such thing as a social system; that individual self-interest was the primary mover of success and that the world was black-and-white.

Here's what she missed - when you split the world up into "right" and "wrong" you invariably end up with an unspoken third category - irrelevant.

Horrific tragedies in faraway countries?  Not our issue, unless we're threatened.  Terrible plights of people in remote First Nations communities in our own country?  Until we're shamed, we remain unresponsive and even then, our attention is fleeting.  Homelessness?  Poverty? Mental health?  The best social program is a job - and it's the job of the individual to get out there, hustle their stuff and make employment happen.  Individuals are their own best advocates; they just need to get up and advocate.  It'll be nice to see it when it happens, but it's not our place to nudge anyone into protecting their self-interests.

Passive avoidance works the same way passive success does - through inaction.  We don't act in someone else's favour and find reasons to justify why.  If, for instance, a passive person is on the receiving end of someone else's aggression, they probably have it coming.  It's certainly got nothing to do with us.

We definitely find it hard to act when a negative to someone else results in a positive for us - at least, if we don't fear the consequences of that negative behaviour coming home to roost.

What about when the risk we face of ignoring the bad behaviour of a provider is recognizable, but not enough to make us feel threatened - or lands so close to home we're sure to be impacted?

ie - hammering the horn when someone runs a light and nearly hits your car; or giving the finger to someone who beeps at you after you've run the light.
Despite the fact that he killed his girlfriend, Oscar Pistorius still has legions of fans.  People who like him as a performer or admire his embodiment of competitive success will protect him by blaming his girlfriend for her own death.

You'll see the exact same things in politics; Ford Nation will attack anyone who criticizes the Mayor and, oddly enough, will say that the only thing that matters is the results the Mayor achieves.  Pierre Penashue is using this same "the ends justify the means" approach with his constituents - so long as you get the goods, what do you care about what else I do with my time?

Offense is the best defense, even in those incidents where something you have done is the thing most offensive.

Of course, aggressive hustlers are looking to defend themselves, too, at the exact same time they're viewing others as marks.  For all the aggressive posturing and ego you get from Wall Street suits, you also get this:

But this girl, clearly, is a paid whore.  You can't take what she says seriously.  She's probably pissed that she didn't get tipped well, but that says more about her than it does about the client - right?


Let's apply all of this to the death of Rehtaeh Parsons.  The boys who raped her would probably have never faced justice were it not for the picture they took.  After all, sex is a transaction between two parties; if one's complaining after the fact, it must mean they weren't happy with the deal they got, right?  That's how transactions work.  It's why we have a social habit of blaming the victim
This leaning towards whatever stance lets us be passive is made worse by the urge to protect our own self-interests; when it becomes clear a wrong was committed, we're more likely to double-down on our positions and absolve ourselves of anything resembling responsibility.  If it gets so bad that the consequences can't be ignored - like the suicide of a 17 year-old - we will recognize fault only as long as its fashionable (unless you empathize with the victim, maybe because you've got a teenage daughter yourself) and assuredly not point the finger of blame at the mirror.

The rapists themselves were probably pleased with their actions, at first - they hustled, seized an opportunity and took what they wanted, with maybe a bit of risk of getting caught.  They see this behaviour all the time, in different contexts, so even if they knew it wasn't right they wouldn't be dwelling on the risk of repercussion.  This is a crime we will see repeated; maybe the boys were wear masks next time, but that will only feed into the power-trip of the crime.

If Rehtaeh had been physically brutalized, then people would have taken action - but as it was, the wounds were internal and easy to avoid.

Which is what peers did.  They kinda knew about it or definitively knew all about it but easier than taking on the boys who came out on top was piling on the girl at the bottom.  It happens all the time.

My grandfather tells stories of Buchenwald Concentration Camp; inmates would become so numb, so mentally walled off that if someone fell over dead on the grounds from disease or starvation, you'd simply go check them for useful gear and then move on.  The ones who got the shoes or the bread were the toughest and they did so at the expense of the weak.  There was no mental space to grieve death.  
The RCMP and school triaged the rape case by focusing on why it wouldn't be relevant to them, not the reverse.  That's how business works, right?  Empathy has no place in rational decision making, it's a bad motivator.  Passively or aggressively, you want to avoid expenditures of any kind.  If an issue is severe enough, the process will make that clear all on its own.
And that's indeed what happened; the police and system did their triage, let things go and the system course-corrected.  I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking it shouldn't take social uproar to get the wheels of justice turning.
And there's the ultimate contradiction.  Justice isn't being done; we're throwing the starfish back in the ocean, one at a time and ignoring the structural challenges that really need addressed.  By addressing the wrong problems and ignoring the very real connections between process and outcome, we're not recognizing that social challenges take social solutions.
L'etat, c'est nous.  If we really want a world where things like the rape of Rethaeh don't happen, it's not isolated individuals who need to change - it's all of us.
Here's a place to start:

9. Teach children that their behaviors affect others.

10. Teach kids to look for opportunities to help.


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