I have to some extent downplayed the rape narrative in my Wikileaks roundup and the reason for that should be obvious — the heated narratives of rape, rape 101, rape culture and so on make discussion nearly impossible. However, narratives always play an important part around events. There are always two aspects to any given event: what actually happened, and perceptions of what happened. Even people directly participating in an event can derive different, perfectly legitimate perceptions of the event. These perceptions are important, because right or wrong, nuanced or simplistic, logical or emotional — they drive the person’s subsequent thought and actions, creating their own reality about what the event represented. Even if the event is objectively captured (let’s say on film), people create their own narratives when watching it. This is how a jury can deadlock and ultimately acquit a man charged of drugging his date and raping her. The narrative there focused on her willingness to party with him and get drunk in the first place.
In any case, popular reaction to an event creates its own reality of the narrative it is responding to. This is what we are seeing in the case of the sexual assault charges against Assange. There are any number of factors to focus on, thereby shaping an observer’s chosen narrative.
Here, the narrative is that of “Trumped up Charges to Snare Fugitive on Unrelated Charges”: REMINDER: The “Sex Crime” That Julian Assange Was Just Arrested For Wasn’t Rape. It Was… Even feminist Naomi Wolf fell for this one: Julian Assange Captured by World’s Dating Police. This narrative also gets a boost over the fact that originally, the rape charges were withdrawn, and the remaining molestation charges were not to lead to arrest: Rape warrant against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange cancelled.
There is another narrative, and that is of the “Unreliable, Untrustworthy, Underhanded Accuser”: Kirk Murphy’s deplorable Assange Accuser Worked with US-Funded, CIA-Tied Anti-Castro Group.
Don’t forget also that we have the general dynamic of the “Highly Visible Case Because of Who Is Involved.” Cases that receive high visibility because the victims are young, white, and pretty are the classic model here (Laci Peterson, Natalie Halloway, etc). The flip side of that narrative is the one of the accused who, often because they are rich, famous, or powerful (Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Paul Reuben) is widely considered to be the victim of trumped up or meritless charges. But either way, the dynamic works to stir up interest and advocacy on the behalf of the person in which interest is vested and demonization of the other.
Finally, the “You Can’t Have Regrets Afterwards” or “It Doesn’t Count If You Already Started” tropes, which are guaranteed to show up if the victim isn’t under 13 and a virgin, were ably shut down by Feministe: Some thoughts on “sex by surprise”.
All too often, we are forced into an either-or dichotomy. Either Assange is the victim of political maneuvering to get him in jail and silenced (and therefore, those sluts! because Assange must therefore be innocent of these charges), or those who support the charges must be cynically using feminist element for what they want (mostly because none of them have previously demonstrated much concern about these sorts of charges) — and pretty much no one takes much notice of those who point out the problems with the treatment of Assange’s accusers: Julian Assange rape allegations: treatment of women ‘unfair and absurd’.
So, that I think Assange’s arrest was politically orchestrated does not mean that I think the charges as brought up by the Swedish court are meritless. That I think Assange’s accusers deserve their day in court does not mean that I think he is guilty — or innocent — that is for a courtroom to determine rather than the press of public opinion. That I think Assange is fighting increasing and encroaching authoritarianism does not mean that I am blind to his potential shortcomings as an ordinary human being.
A few thoughtful voices do capture some of these these nuances: Julian Assange Rape Charges: Serious Crime or Anti-WikiLeaks Conspiracy? and No one gains from this ‘rape-rape’ defence of Julian Assange and Feminism, Assange rape charges, free speech, and Wikileaks. See also: Did Assange’s Accusers Want STD Testing? and C’mon, we can do this acting like grown-ups thing.
But it’s a difficult thing to swim against the currents of popular narratives. Rape culture pretty much demands a polarization of this issue and a reading of the events that casts the accusers as either sluts or somehow colluding with political conspiracies to take the accused down.
As a final note, I want to return to zunguzungu, who nails not just the rape narrative, but the Wikileaks narrative: There Is Something To See Here
Assange’s rape charges are important for very different reasons, of course. It is a scandal how international law fails to take seriously a very serious crime like rape, but the scandal is certainly not unique to this case, nor should this case — because of its unique visibility — be distorted by being forced to bear the burden of the gigantic structural issues it brings into focus. The two women Julian Assange may have raped deserve justice, but no more or less than the millions of abused women world-wide who also deserve justice, and focusing on two very visible victims is only useful if it allows us to better focus our attention on the invisible ones. Does focusing on two visible victims, after all, do anything to reveal the structural and systemic reasons why some victims are treated as such while most are completely ignored? To some extent it might — and particular feminist writers have been doing really good work to make this point — but it’s also really dangerous to be distracted by this particular case, because if there’s one thing it does not provide, it’s clarity. In any case, I think it’s fair to say that most people who are moralizing about either the fact that Interpol has taken a sudden and suspicious interest in rape victims (or about the fact that, most of the time, they don’t) also don’t seem to have much interest in actually figuring out when and where and why Interpol does intervene. Lots of discussion of the Assange case has not been accompanied with much discussion of other cases like it; the latter has been ignored in favor of the juiciness of the former. That seems like as obviously a bad thing as it’s an utterly predictable thing.
I think we do everyone a disservice if we don’t take the rape charges seriously on their own terms. I think Assange should face his charges, but the Swedish court and British extradition process should be scrutinized as closely as it can be to determine the extent to which political pressure is distorting how the system might otherwise work. He should face justice, whatever that may prove to be, not politically motivated persecution. And unless we’ve given up on that ideal completely — and however damaged and imprecise the mechanisms may be, they can still work if we try to use them — we accomplish that by focusing on the system, not the case.
On the other hand, if all we do is look at Assange himself — which is what most of the media wants to do — we fall into the trap they‘ve set for us. If we moralize about Wikileaks and Julian Assange exclusively, we’re not doing our moral duties as citizens, and as human beings. Our job is to watch people with power and try to ensure that people with power don’t misuse it. Part of that is scrutinizing powerful men who have the opportunity to commit rape and be forgiven for it by people who are in solidarity with their politics. But a very different — and enormous — part of being good citizens, in this case, is observing that the United States government acts like a giant, amoral, and secretive machine for more deeply establishing economic and political privilege worldwide, and that keeping secrets from us — almost exactly as Julian Assange wrote, years ago — is the way they go about doing it. Whether or not he’s a rapist, and whether or not Wikileaks has been acting like responsible journalists or irresponsible anarchists, has very little to do with the fact that he was right, at least, about that.
Go read the whole thing.