‘Evil’ isn’t an excuse

Zerlina Maxwell, law student and political commentator, “can’t even read” her own Facebook page because “it’s full of people wanting … Continued

Zerlina Maxwell, law student and political commentator, “can’t even read” her own Facebook page because “it’s full of people wanting to rape me,” she told Salon.

The reason for this outpouring of hateful online posting is that this courageous rape survivor spoke on Fox’s Hannity program and said preventing rape is about “telling men not to rape women,” not telling women to get guns, or indeed giving women advice at all. She argued, “If firearms were the answer, then the military would be the safest place for women, and it’s not.”

Maxwell is right. Far from being safe from rape, women in the military are subject to an “epidemic of sexual assault and rape” and these rapists in the military often get away with it.

The simple truth Maxwell told is that if you want to prevent rape, “train men not to grow up to become rapists.”

The disgusting, threatening response to Maxwell’s call to focus on men to end rape is a blatant attempt to intimidate and silence her. It is exactly the climate of fear that rape creates and illustrates what Susan Brownmiller wrote in her ground-breaking book, “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape,” namely that “[r]ape is a conscious process of intimidation.”

Maxwell also made the point that unlike the stereotype of the masked stranger, many rapists are known to their victims. That is why, in fact, Sean Hannity’s generalization that “evil exists in the world” does not help us understand the specifics of rape. This is not a nameless ‘stranger danger,’ but a disturbing aspect of the power dynamics of women’s relationships with men.

The way to end rape, in fact, is not to focus narrowly on an abstract concept of “evil” in the human condition, but to get serious about what is broken in the power relationships between women and men. What Maxwell is suggesting, in my view, is that it will be productive to understand the practical dynamics of human goodness and how it is specifically cultivated and expanded.

I teach a class called “Good and Evil,” and every year I have taught it, the “good” part of the class gets longer. That’s not because “evil” has become so comprehensible, but because the dynamics of goodness are so many and so profound.

In my class, I use Phillip Hallie’s book, “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.” This is a richly insightful account of how Protestant villagers in France saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis. These villagers had experience in saving refugees, so that had practiced helping others, and they supported one another in standing against violence when many in France were helping the Nazis deport the Jews.

We need to know that goodness can be learned, and that can be practiced even in the face of cultural supports for perpetrating violence. From the experience of Le Chambon, there are several key lessons about how to teach men to end violence against women. Men need to consciously model behavior of respect for women to boys and other men, and they need to directly challenge the culture of acceptance of violence against women by speaking out publicly against it.

What often happens instead, however, is that our current “rape culture” sends signals to men that rape is okay, that women actually want to be raped as illustrated by this horrifying incident from a Yale University fraternity stunt. The Yale community held forums in response, and, of course such attitudes are not unique to Yale. But, in my view, “community forums” are not nearly enough to address this systemic problem.

What Zerlina Maxwell is suggesting to me is that we consider the question of how we proactively teach men so that they comprehend that rape is never okay. Vancouver cut their city’s rate of sexual assault by 10 percent, for example, with their “Don’t Be That Guy” campaign that aimed to reach men with the message that they should not be “that guy” who sexually assaults a woman. We need to bring this campaign to the U.S. (as well as to the rest of the world).

Another important project in this effort is called “Ring the Bell.” “Ring the Bell” is a call for “one million men” to make “to make one million concrete, actionable promises to end violence against women.” This effort was announced by Sir Patrick Stewart to coincide with International Women’s Day.

There are several important aspects to the “Ring the Bell” effort that speak directly to what Zerlina Maxwell was talking about, and show how important it is for men to stand up to other men, including in social media, and challenge the culture that supports violence against women.

The Web site calls for men to:

1. Teach kids who look up to me that strong men respect women—and walk the talk

2. Challenge friends or Internet commenters who disrespect women or girls.

3. Donate money, skills or other assets to those working for women’s safety.

There are some sample Tweets provided for men to use, such as:

I promise to help end #violence against women. Join @breakthrough’s global movement to #RingTheBell #VAW.

This is what practical goodness looks like in action. Ultimately we will need far more than “one million” good men to “walk the talk” on ending violence against women, but the modeling behavior and the Internet challenges have the capacity to influence many.

Good (as well as evil) is not abstract. This is an example.

  • Carstonio

    Excellent point about the generalization Hannity makes. Often this is about the generalizers insisting that only amoral monsters would commit rape, a group that conveniently doesn’t include the generalizers themselves. And often this is about the myth that men can’t control themselves when women “tease the panther.” At best, men like Hannity are simply throwing up their hands and concluding that male violence against women is simply an inevitability. Rape is really a crime of entitlement. There shouldn’t be a power dynamic in women’s relationships with men. Thistlethwaite recommends good remedies, but ultimately the cure is to stop socializing men to believe that they belong at the top of a gender hierarchy.

  • jarandeh


    Very, very well said.