By now most of you have heard about Ray Rice, formerly of Rutgers, most recently of the Baltimore Ravens, being fired by the Ravens for punching his now wife, then fiancee, in an elevator. Or, more aptly, he was fired for the outcry created by this incident being caught on film and released to the public. When people saw him throw the punch that landed his fiancee unconscious, suddenly the vague words “domestic violence” became something unconscionable and the Ravens and NFL, both of whom had previously defended and knuckle-rapped Rice had to destroy him.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it so eerily parallels the Mike Rice (former basketball coach at Rutgers) situation, it’s uncanny. He chucked basketballs at his players, not his love interest, and none were quite knocked out, but all this was no biggie till the film hit the press and then everyone was outraged. The parallels run especially deep when we look at how top administrators deal with the idea that they had/had not seen the video and what that means for their accountability for the whole situation. Rutgers President Robert Barchi went as far as the rather far-fetched notion that he’d had the video of Rice hurling balls and obscenities at his team sitting around his office but hadn’t bothered to take a gander. The Commissioner of the NFL and the leaders of the Ravens are now making more or less the same claim, though theirs is slightly more plausible since some trashy tabloid held the rights to this video not, uh, the team/league itself.
The Onion got near-universal acclaim on Facebook and elsewhere for skewering this whole incident with its article entitled NFL Announces New Zero-Tolerance Policy On Videotaped Domestic Violence. As is par for The Onion, the title is the most amusing part of the piece and basically all you need to know. The idea here being that as long as you can avoid the videotape, things are hunky-dory, but as soon as the tape gets out, forget it.
While there is certainly some hypocrisy in the idea of punishing people harshly only once they’ve been publicly viewed by all and sundry doing whatever dastardly thing they were already known to have done, the fact that it happens is less about hypocrisy than we might think. Or perhaps it’s about a larger hypocrisy that we enact society-wide.
You see, violence is pretty shocking.
And seeing it is really the only way, short of, say, feeling it, to understand that.
When we actually see violence in front of us, be it a bombing or a beating or an attack or a chucked basketball or 9/11, we are immediately repelled by it. It fills us with disgust, rage, revulsion. This, I would contend, is because violence is antithetical to everything humanity is working toward. It is innately repugnant in all its forms and this is self-evident as soon as it’s displayed to us.
Unfortunately, as visual and rather concrete creatures, we have a really hard time abstracting this to violence we don’t see. Like, say, domestic violence that is not leaked to us publicly by a trashy tabloid. Or, perhaps, every American bombing of foreign countries ever. This violence is perfectly acceptable to us, or at worst a little unfortunate, precisely because we do not have to deal with it. It is not in our face or even close to our face. It is merely an ethereal concept that can be described with the anesthetic “domestic violence” or “collateral damage”. These offer us nothing of the visceral horror that grainy tape of someone being pummeled can offer.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at Rodney King, not unique among African-American men targeted unfairly and demolished by police officers in the United States. But uniquely caught on film and thus bringing a whole generation of outrage to the question of police beatings, racist cops, and injustice in America. Or perhaps you prefer the imagery of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, over and over and over again. You think it’s a coincidence that the American media offered you that spectacle approximately 12 times a minute for weeks after 9/11 but never once showed the results of American killings abroad? Violence has an immediate and powerful effect on us. We feel sympathy for the victim and rage at the perpetrator(s). And thus what we see is ultimately what we get. What we don’t see is hard to understand and can be dealt with more esoterically.
I don’t think it’s a mystery which of these is a better reaction for us to have. The fact that those who saw the Rodney King beating or Mike Rice or Ray Rice immediately knew that what was being done was wrong and should be stopped and dealt with harshly is probably a good indicator that these sorts of things are wrong, regardless of whether they happen publicly. And thus it would seem that a key tool for civil society would be ensuring that those who are subjected to violence have a chance of being filmed so that their perpetrators can be publicized and their misdeeds judged on their actual merits.
Increasingly in our society, this isn’t really becoming a debated proposition. It’s here and it’s live. Certainly the last few months have informed everyone that every elevator in the country, seemingly one of the most enclosed and vulnerable locations imaginable, is being taped constantly. Pretty much every business on the planet has a near-infinite number of cameras catching every angle, door, corner, and hallway. Police cameras are up on many corners in many cities. And every person over the age of 11 is walking around with a highly sophisticated video camera in their pocket, ready to use at a moment’s notice.
Now I know that for three generations of Americans raised on Orwell’s predictions, the idea of the perma-telescreen is scary. And I get it. And there are some very compelling arguments in The Circle, a fantastic recent book, for why we should be cautious about some of these developments. But I’m sorry, this is another great point for the death of privacy. As always, my primary caveat is that there has to be a level playing-field of information and that there cannot be information asymmetry. If we have universal video where the elites, the rich, the corporations, and/or the politicians are both immune and have greater access, then it’s trouble. But the reason it’s trouble is for the asymmetry, not for the information itself. Because that information is stuff that can both illustrate the real horrors of violence as it is enacted and, by extension, deter it better than a million threats of incarceration.
I’ll give you a thought experiment here and one that should probably come with a trigger-warning for those who like that sort of thing: Think about how hard it is to convict rape cases in status quo and how many people brush off rape allegations like so many gnats. Universities especially, as has been widely publicized in the last couple of years. Now imagine that one had video footage of a rape in progress. Surely the few efforts to depict something like this on film in a fictional setting have garnered some of the greatest terror, outrage, and bleakness of anything ever committed to film. The idea that the depiction is real and not fictitious would be transcendentally horrifying. Suddenly, it’s hard to imagine anyone using the vague and demeaning language so often thrown at rape victims in the wake of having to witness their violation on screen. And while the idea of publicizing such footage is itself a difficult ordeal for the rape victim in question, it does seem like it would make justice far more likely and, in turn, increase deterrence against this most heinous of crimes.
I have to ask again: what is so great about privacy? And even if there are things that we like about privacy, do we really like them enough to come with the baggage of enabling and allowing rape, domestic violence, and abuse by those in power? Again, I stress that if it’s just one group of people getting to watch another and not being watched in turn, that’s highly problematic and everything Orwell rightly warned against. But assuming we get to watch the watchers and everyone is playing each part equally, doesn’t this just make everyone a better person?
If you’re not willing to come with me that far, let’s at least agree that someone needs to start filming the results of American warfare, declared or undeclared, abroad and get that on some US media. There will be the occasional gung-ho nut who cheers for every house falling over and assumes the entire nation of Yemen is populated by terrorists and no one else, but I think the vast majority of people will react sanely and be appalled. Just as America and even the NFL, a sport dedicated to people tackling each other, was not largely defined by a couple fringe sexists who felt that Ray Rice’s actions were acceptable.
Violence needs witnesses to be stopped. Gandhi understood this, King understood this, and they probably would not have been successful were there not witnesses to their victimization. Ideally, we would all abhor it just as much in the abstract as we do in front of us. But realistically, I’d rather take my chances on getting more cameras out there than getting more people to find empathy without their eyes. And here, these men of Rutgers have something to teach us. The cameras are not the enemy so much as what some will do when they think no one is watching.