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Moment of Truth: Rape and Rhetoric

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.

Listen carefully: "Among the many atrocities Dr. Mengele perpetrated on his subjects were so-called experiments "requiring" the mutilation of his subjects' eyes. The kids loved it."

Would you have a problem figuring out that one of those sentences was sincere and the other sarcastic? Would you have a problem figuring out which was which? Would you have trouble understanding the purpose of the scare quotes around "requiring" in the first sentence, or difficulty separating the momentary sarcasm couched within the sincere?

How do you know when something's plainly sincere and something's meant in some other way? In the first sentence, the words "atrocities" "perpetrated" "mutilation" and "Dr. Mengele" are tip-offs that what is being written of is not done so out of admiration. Those tip-offs are clues that the statement, "The kids loved it," is meant sarcastically, perhaps even sardonically. But if you don't read the tip-offs accurately, how do you know what's meant sincerely and what is not?

The writer relies on the reader's extra-textual associations with the tip-off words. Nazi doctors and the atrocities they perpetrated are by general consensus evil. There are, of course, some people who would argue with the presumption of consensus, but for the most part, any reader of the English language at a sixth grade level or beyond would understand the tone of the sentences, and would replicate that tone in their minds as they read. The reciter of such a pattern of tropes on the radio would be expected to provide vocal cues to aid the listener's interpretation.

Last week, more than one very intelligent person thought that I, in my Moment of Truth segment, was advocating for the rape of Bill Cosby in prison. I assure everyone that I mean this sincerely and emphatically: I do not advocate the rape of Bill Cosby or anyone else, either in prison or at any other location. And if that wasn't the problem, as one listener asserted, then perhaps it was just a repulsive essay. That I can't deny. But such an interpretation also calls into question my own reasons for presenting such a piece of repulsiveness. Did I choose the right tool for that job? And what was the job? If listeners are supposed to detect extra-textual clues, did I maybe convey a meaning that was beyond my conscious control? I wouldn't doubt it.

When I said, "It's going to be someone's job to rape Bill Cosby in prison," I meant, if someone is going to rape Bill Cosby in prison, where he would, were he not rich, be put as punishment for drugging and raping women – in a society which punishes by locking men up with other men who can statistically be expected to rape them, then rape is a tacitly official part of the punishment. By sarcastically calling raping Bill Cosby a "job" or "duty" or "burden," I meant to implicate our, or perhaps only my, unspoken acceptance of rape in prison as the normal course of everyday business.

Why was that unclear, if it was? First, I blame myself, the writer and lector, for failing to be the master of my extra-textual cues. After over 20 years on the air and 40 years plying the trade of satire, I expect more from myself.

When I said, "But on the bright side, it's redemptive revenge, that's the beauty of it. It's a healing revenge. The Jews call it tikkun: the repairing of the damaged fabric of the universe. That's what raping Bill Cosby in the ass with your dick is. Tikkun. It's a sacred act, raping Bill Cosby in the ass," why wasn't it clear that I mean the opposite? Is it because of my coarse phrasing, which is more typical of a straight cis white man's diction than we think it should be? What might make someone more unsure about my commitment against treating rape as redemptive than my commitment against a Nazi doctor mutilating children's eyeballs?

I know it's a simplistic idea, and there's a lot more that's objectionable in my essay than I mention here, but I'd say we're more certain of the unacceptability of Mengele's atrocities, which are in the past, and labeled with the negative signifier "Nazi," than we are of the idea that rape is beyond the pale. Rape has judgments of concealment and equivocation attached to it. And it happens to women, and we're equivocal about our sympathy toward women. And it happens to men, and we're equivocal about men who allow something to happen to them that happens to women. And those men are in prison, so we feel like they made bad choices. We know a Nazi was a Nazi, but was that rape really a rape? Is the consensus there? Rape abounds in our culture, and many citizens seem immune to clarity about its grip on our lives. And I'm not only talking about a lawmaker who calls a pregnancy resulting from rape "a silver lining," or other such egregious nonsense.

How were you supposed to know which of the following statements I meant sincerely and which were meant to be read as sarcasm: "[Y]ou need a professional, career prison rapist. Someone just really strong and mean, who rapes anyone vulnerable he sees. A psychotic bully. Rape is just the most extreme form of bullying, after all." If I meant the first three statements sarcastically, fine. That would go along with a reading of the bulk of the text as satire of some kind. But that last sentence: "Rape is just the most extreme form of bullying, after all," if read sarcastically, sounds as if the writer, I, is mocking the idea of bullying and its status as a buzzword in the zeitgeist. "Oh, everyone's so worked up about bullying. Hey, why don't we call rape bullying? It's someone being mean to someone else, after all."

I honestly feel that rape is the most extreme form of bullying, more extreme even than threatening to kill, because rape is not only domination through humiliation and pain on its own terms, it also contains the threat of murder. Only torture, of which rape can and often is a component, rises to this level of bullying. So I probably should have left that sentence off the end of that paragraph. What I was imagining was a reader or listener following along in disgust, whether at me or at our justice system, which tacitly punishes with rape, and then taking that final sentence at face value, albeit colored by the disgust immediately preceding it. Like a flourish of sincere intelligence atop an excremental sundae.

The complicated idea I wanted to get across was this: what we call rape culture includes rape tacitly condoned as part of our justice system, and I am complicit in the acceptance of this situation, even as I posture to condemn it. Was I having too much fun talking about dicks, butts and piñatas on the radio? Probably perversely so. It was a perverse form of fun, without mirth. I sensed myself looking over my shoulder, saying, That is just so wrong. Yeah, I replied to myself, it is.

I kept writing. What does that say about me? I think we all know the answer to that. But it also says we who are wrapped in the winding sheet of toxic masculinity have normalized fear, and in this case homophobic fear, of rape as a slapstick device. That's part of what I meant to convey. I had hoped that screed of mine was sufficiently sickening to carry a sense of gallows fatalism. That was some of what I was feeling as I set the words down. I can't deny it was repulsive. It was.

Sometimes you have to blur yourself and allow yourself license and leave yourself open to embarrassment and scorn to express your truth. That can hurt other people, but I have strong, honest, brilliant, resilient people around me. Thus I live to scribe another day. Perhaps I will live even to regret it. Or perhaps we all will.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!

Moment of Truth


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