Monday, December 8, 2014

Blind Faith and Evidence

Faith is a funny thing.

On the one hand, it's a vital and necessary part of human existence.  Without something to govern and structure our lives, to give us integrity and meaning, we wander blind and aimless through life.

On the other, it can distract us from reality, becoming so much a feature of our identity that we filter out all information that does not conform with our presuppositions.  Our "biases" come to define us.

This peculiar polarity--of the necessity of faith, and the perils of being so focused on our normative framework that we lose the capacity to stand in a transformative, growing relationship with the real--was painfully illustrated in the recent debacle at the University of Virginia, my alma mater.

What was spun out by Rolling Stone, and then, inevitably, painfully retracted, was a story that lived entirely within the semiotics of a particular worldview.  It was a story of rape culture, of power and privilege and the fundamental devaluing and brutalization of women.  It was a story of the patriarchal structures of inherently misogynist institutions, heteronormative and classist and hegemonic.  As told and written, it lit up one academic feminist archetype after another.

It was also not true, in the empirical sense of the word.  Meaning, the events described did not happen, materially and provably, in the time and space we inhabit.

The rhetoric of the article reminded me of the language of Christian fundamentalism, hyperbolic and certain, so absolutely certain.  The characters and stories within parsed like a Jack Chick tract, with its familiar cast and nice crisp inevitable story arc.

Not just the assault, the victim, and the assailants, mind you.  But also the "friends," who in the account of the young woman in the article were presented as horrible and self-interested, shallow social climbing nothings, the bourgeois enablers of rape culture.  Or the individuals interviewed on the street, like the young woman presented as a party girl frat bimbo.  Or the victim's rights communities, sketched bright and crisp and heroic as a socialist realist painting.

That bimbo, as it happens, is a rape survivor herself, who has worked with the survivor community.  Just as the friends, when actually contacted, proved not to be what they appeared.  And the heroes of the story?  Their support, their certainty no matter what, has only deepened the harm to the young woman.

There are truths in the article, sure.  Sexual assault on campuses is a problem, one that concerned me when I lived in Charlottesville, and one that continues to be an issue.  When I attended UVA, while I was a member of an outlier fraternity, I also never once attended a Rugby Road bacchanal.  They were loud and crowded, mobs of strangers getting sloppy and stupid, an introvert's nightmare.

And something most likely did happen to "Jackie."

But we cannot now, and do not now, know what that thing is.  It has been obscured in her, written over by other stories, cast from a particular subculture.

Just as our grasp of reality, the thing that is the truth of our existence, is obscured when we do not test these stories against the material realities they inhabit.

Acknowledging that difficult, complex truth is vital, if our belief is to have any meaning.