A Saratoga teen committed suicide after cell phone photos of her rape went viral. In one of her last Facebook posts, she stated that ‘the whole school knows’ and that her life was ‘ruined’. Seven months after her death, on Thursday, April 11th, the suspects were finally arrested, but for Audrie Pott, this is a hollow justice.
Unfortunately, this kind of case has become increasingly familiar. Rehtaeh Parsons battled intense depression for a year as a photo that depicted her assault circulated on the web and law enforcement concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the alleged rapists. She ultimately hanged herself, but now the legal case may be reopened. The unnamed victim of the Steubenville case was harassed online even after the heinousness the attack and the callousness of the perpetrators was revealed. And doubtless there are many other similar cases that the media haven’t picked up on yet.
There are some commonalities here, beyond the obvious- for one, the slow and equivocal response of law enforcement, and, in turn, the increased involvement of Anonymous. Turning to such extralegal, disunified collectives to extract justice is a dangerous precedent to set, and Anonymous is well aware that it’s walking a fine line between social activism and outright vigilantism. But on the other hand, it’s refreshing to see an internet force used for (mostly) good.
Because for many, including myself, the most haunting and awful part of this story is expressed in devastatingly simple terms- ‘the whole school knows’.
For outsiders, these cases are so horrifying precisely because of their public nature; to us, it’s unbelievable that the cell phone pictures circulated around social media, were hash-tagged and commented on as anything else might be. No one thought to go and report this to an adult, let alone the police? No one was horrified and sickened by what they saw and read? No one reprimanded the perpetrators for their cruelty and their utter disregard for human dignity? And if they did, how long did it take for that to happen?
Many of these bystanders probably thought, whether consciously or not, that circulating or commenting on an online post did not constitute their actual involvement. They were wrong. By their inaction in the face of these violations, they became complicit in them.
Much of this story uncannily reminds me of a novel I read several years ago: Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. In it, a young girl, Melinda, is raped while drunk at a party. As she attempts to call for help, she brings the cops down on the party and is censured by her school, who are unaware of her rape. Her friends abandon her and her family remains ignorant of her torment. She spirals into a deep depression, and considers suicide. But after she reveals the truth, the students who once excluded and bullied her are horrified by what they’d done. They rally to Melinda’s side against the rapist, who is finally punished, and she begins to move on with her life.
Speak is an intense book, and highly recommended. But looking back, I can’t help but wonder whether, if cell phone pics and video of Melinda’s rape had circulated around her school today, her fellow students would stand by her, or whether they would have stood by, as so many did, allowing Audrie Pott, Rehteah Parsons, and all the other Melindas of the world to fall alone into darkness. Or perhaps they would attack her all the same, as in the Steubenville case. After all, she was drunk, so it must be her own fault. What else did she expect to happen?
This is an argument I’ve heard a lot when these cases pop up on the news. For the record, this is my answer to these kinds of claims: You can forbid girls to drink. You can forbid them to dress in anything remotely ‘provocative’. You can forbid them to hang around with boys. But you won’t solve the problem that underlies cases such as these- the fundamental disrespect of women as individuals with dignity. The statement that a girl should expect rape if she is remotely vulnerable is an insult to men, as well as to women. It’s an excuse to perpetuate our current situation, to let the pictures circulate around the internet, to do nothing. Our society will not become more enlightened, more free, or more compassionate without positive change- without eliminating our complicity.
Of course, this is easier said than done. With the advent of photography in the early 1900s, the spread of mass publishing, etc., up to the current state of social media, it’s become increasingly difficult to plead ignorant of atrocities. People have been complicit in cruelty for hundreds of years, if not more, despite the presence of damning evidence right in front of them.
So is it really surprising that modern kids on the internet pass around these terrible images without the outrage they deserve? I don’t wish to imply that their behavior was right and moral, or that it shouldn’t be dealt with and stopped. But it’s not all that surprising- and that’s the sad thing. As we use it, social media is not a light that reveals the truth, so that people can respond appropriately; it’s a mirror that reflects human nature, sometimes down to the blackest roots.
The actions of the rapists are reprehensible beyond what words can express; the suffering of the victims is unimaginable to all those fortunate enough to avoid their fate. But when you think of the bystanders, remember that they aren’t monsters. They aren’t abnormally callous, extraordinarily apathetic products of an all-consuming social media machine. They are wholly and completely human.
This isn’t an excuse, but a warning. Almost everyone is capable of actively inflicting incredible harm on others, but usually, people cause their damage more indirectly. We unthinkingly hop on the bandwagon, we exclude the person that everyone else excludes without considering the validity or morality of our actions, we ignore obvious signs of deep trouble because we’d rather not get involved or it’s ‘not our business’- those are our easy cruelties of passivity.
This is old, old news, regardless of what social media platform we happen to be on at the moment. And while it’s clear that we need a fair legal standard to deal with these new kinds of situations, it’s also true that we will have to continue dealing with them as long as we don’t change our societal attitudes and behaviors, and especially those of our children. This grotesque circus of online violation, humiliation, and spectacle won’t go away on its own- it will persist, as long as it has our complicity.
Born from the Earth into Isolation by Paul Luis Villani
Cover of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson