Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Passion of St Julian

This post discusses rape, sexual assault, rape apology and minimisation. These topics are discussed from a position of support of those who have been raped or sexually assaulted, but if the discussion of them is likely to upset or trigger you, you may wish to stop reading here.


Much has been written in the press and various online news outlets this week and last about the latest in the ongoing saga of Julian Assange's refusal to submit to extradition to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault. Then today, a number of writers, directors, academics and so-called human rights activists supported a petition to the Ecuadorian President requesting that he consider granting Assange political asylum on the grounds that, if extradited to the United States, he could face the death penalty for espionage. Numerous armchair commentators have weighed into the discussion, normally via the comments on various posts, such as in this New Statesman piece by lawyer and freedom-of-speech advocate David Allen Green, to claim that the move to extradite Julian Assange to Sweden is somehow a political play by the US government to then extract him from Sweden to face charges for spying.

In case you have missed the reporting around this, Assange is wanted in Sweden for questioning in relation to charges of rape and sexual assault of two women in 2010. He has fought extradition to Sweden for two years and in May of this year lost his appeal at the Supreme Court. His latest move was to go to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to seek political asylum; a request that has been granted temporarily whilst his case is considered.

The entirety of Assange's arguments against extradition to Sweden, and those of his apparently numerous supporters, is that the whole thing is being puppeteered by the US in a move to get him extradited to America to answer charges of espionage. There are a number of things that are problematic about this argument, but most obvious legal point is the fact that the US has an extradition treaty with the UK and they could, therefore, choose to seek extradition from the UK if they wished. There is no need to "orchestrate" some other criminal charges for him to answer in Sweden to enable the US to extradite him.

However, the main thing about this that leaves an incredibly bad taste in my mouth arises from that last sentence. The idea that these charges have been in some way "orchestrated". The amount of victim-blaming, rape-apologising and diminishing of the crimes for which he is answerable is breathtaking. In some ways, the victim-blaming and rape apology is not unexpected. It's wrong and it's vile but it's not new. The same arguments of "well, they had sex with him before so why wouldn't he think he could have sex with them again?" and "they're only crying rape because they think they can make money out of him/because the US Secret Service put them up to it/because they regretted it later" (the latter argument most horrifyingly summarised by one commenter as "buyer's remorse"). While I could in some way deal with that, albeit with a large amount of bile to spew, the argument that makes me almost incoherent with rage doesn't even come close to being covered by the term "rape apology".

Some people, some intelligent people that I have previously admired, are arguing that even if Assange did rape these two women - which I agree has to be tested in a court of law - that he should not be prosecuted because of his work as a campaigner against other injustices. He should, some argue, be given special dispensation and immunity against prosecution because of his work with Wikileaks.

Julian Assange should not be prosecuted because of the good work he's done.

I'm just going to let that sink in for a moment.

I understand enough about the way that the human mind works to see where this is coming from. In an act of what psychologists call "minimisation" we put up buffers to protect ourselves from the pain of facing up to things we've said and done to people, or by those we love, respect or admire. If a respected public figure, a friend or a family member is found to have done something awful, our immediate reaction is disbelief. After disbelief, minimisation helps to protect you from the upsetting reality by, for example, discounting that something really happened (say, for example, the women in question were really US Secret Service stooges in a plot to extract Assange to face different charges), cognitive distortion through projection of blame (arguing they had sex with him before, they had no right to say they were raped), shaming (suggesting the women were sluts for what they did with him previously so they had it coming) and minification (saying, that a petty assault charge is nothing compared to the world politics involved in Wikileaks). This could help to explain, though not excuse, why Whoopi Goldberg said of the Roman Polanski child sex case that since the girl had gotten in the hot tub with him, she was clearly "asking for" her later sodomisation. It may also give some insight into why supporters of the Wikileaks cause have sought solace in the obfuscation of the sexual assault allegations against Assange by choosing instead to see it as a tactic to persecute him for defying the authorities.

Just because someone does a bad thing, it doesn't negate other good things they've done. All those good things will remain and they will still be good. However, the converse is also true. If someone has done good things, that doesn't diminish the impact of any bad things they may do. The two things are mutually exclusive. I believe that people should be judged in a court of law and not by public opinion and that everyone is innocent until proven otherwise by due process. However, by resisting that due process at every step of the way, Assange has in this case made things infinitely worse for not only the women involved in this case but also anyone else who has experienced sexual assault.

I have no desire to pronounce Assange guilty. It's up to due process to properly investigate, question him and put the evidence gained in front of a court. I do, however, wholeheartedly believe that should happen, no matter what the consequences for Assange may be further down the line. If you have been suggesting that Assange should be allowed assylum either in the UK or in Ecuador, please be aware that what you're doing is engaging in minimisation. In so doing, you are not just hurting the women in this case, you're reinforcing something those who have suffered sexual violence or abuse have been told time & time again to belittle their experiences. And don't for a second think that you don't know someone who's been sexually assaulted. It's not something that leaves an outward mark and by minimising the crimes that Assange is being called to answer, you could be deeply hurting someone you care about.

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