Don’t blame me for appalling Saint Mary’s chant

Individuals, not “rape culture,” are at fault here

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By now, anyone who reads the news will have heard of the appalling frosh-week chant at Saint Mary’s University in which students loudly proclaimed their interest in raping everyone’s little sister.

Appropriately, everyone was outraged. The news media was all over it, administrators fell over themselves to apologize, the student leader apologized, and there’s sensitivity training all around.

That was the right response. But these days it seems that we are no longer satisfied with bad behaviour being punished appropriately. It’s not enough that those who have done wrong are brought to account. Today, it seems, everyone must be brought to account for everything.

And so I shouldn’t have been surprised to see this editorial in the Dalhousie Gazette blaming me, you, and everyone we knew for the gormless barking of the leg-humping Huskies of Saint Mary’s.

While the Gazette joins in on the condemnation, it also insists that we must “look at the broader social structures that made it possible for university-educated people to step back and let this happen.”

While I sympathize with the general aims of the writer, this move is the oldest trick in the academic book. In fact, take any social crisis or problem, and add the line quoted above, and, presto, you have a seemingly insightful analysis. A school shooting? Let’s look at the social structures that allowed this to happen. A riot? Let’s look at the social structures that allowed this to happen. Try it at home.

In fairness though, sometimes we really should look at the larger social context, so let’s see how convincing the rest of the analysis is.

The leaders immediately involved in the chant are not the only people responsible for a social situation in which violence against women has been so normalized that chanting “N is for no consent!” met with no immediate disapproval.

This pushes the limits of what could possibly be considered “immediate” disapproval. The incident was recorded and put online, apparently by someone who disapproved. After that, it took about 24 hours before the story was everywhere. Why didn’t anyone who was there object? Because the whole atmosphere of such events is to conform and get along. This is itself a problem, but it’s not evidence that everyone there (or anyone there) actually felt that sexually assaulting underage girls was “normal.” If our culture normalized such behaviour, why was this behaviour universally condemned?

In the same city where Rehtaeh Parsons’ death was treated as a case of online bullying, it’s clear that rape culture continues to be perpetuated at every level of our society.

I honestly cannot follow the logic here. Because some people commit crimes, it therefore follows that our culture condones such crimes? If that were true, they wouldn’t be crimes at all. In any case, we don’t need to posit a “murder culture” to explain murders, nor a “theft culture” to explain stealing. Most crimes are committed despite cultural values, not because of them.

Making every rape, or indeed every tasteless mention of rape, an effect of “rape culture” is short-sighted and mean spirited because it makes everyone guilty or everything, regardless of their particular actions or beliefs. It judges all for the actions of a few. And that, in short, is the definition of prejudice.

Much has been said about how this event can be a teachable moment for the students involved. I hope it’s more than a moment. I hope in the coming years the students involved take history to better understand that abuse and oppression have a long and dark pedigree. I hope they take English to better understand the power of language. I hope they learn to see the complexities and nuances of difficult social issues.

And I hope they learn not to fall back on the self-satisfied rhetoric of cultural blaming.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.




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Don’t blame me for appalling Saint Mary’s chant

  1. You make a lot of trenchant points. I’m not sure I agree that apologies and sensitivity training constitutes “appropriate punishment” in this case, but it’s better than nothing, which is what student leaders apparently have received in previous years.

    I believe “rape culture” is a genuine phenomenon worthy of your consideration; the analogies you raise (to “murder culture” or “theft culture”) are strawmen, as sexual assault has a radically different cultural history than those crimes.

    I hope you do not take issue with the Gazette author’s statement that “we all need to take responsibility for ending violence against women”; it is NOT the same as saying we are all part of the problem, simply that we can be part of the solution.

    • How do you feel about ‘hook up culture’? Promiscuity and destruction of family is a genuine phenomenon worthy of your consideration.

      • I don’t see the relevance to this conversation. Are you accusing the organizers of the chant of promoting promiscuity? If so, I disagree; there is a vast divide between casual, consenting sex and statutory rape.

        Or are you tortuously trying to spin this around to place blame on women (who are the most frequent targets of the word “promiscuity”)? Because that would be all kinds of gross.

  2. “If our culture normalized such behaviour, why was this behaviour universally condemned?”

    Very well said. The people who scream about rape culture always seem to be blind to this reality. For instance, they will bring up the events of Steubenville, Ohio, but never acknowledge that a vast majority of the country condemned the rapists and the town’s deluded defense of them.

    None of them will admit to this, but on a practical level, the real definition of “rape culture” is that all of society is at fault so long as rapes happen anywhere, or anyone ever has the ‘wrong’ opinion on rape.

  3. It may not be a “rape culture” but we certainly are in a society where anything goes. We have lost our moral compass in that, if enough people do it, therefore it must be okay. Some things are immoral and no amount of society “consent” can change that. Everybody is out for themselves and my neighbour, friend, family be damned. We must start at the top and severely punish those that aspire to be our leaders and think of nothing and noone in getting
    what they feel are their entitlements. Our justice system stinks in
    that he who has the money gets “justice”. I don’t believe jail time
    is the correct solution for all but the most heinous of crimes. I believe that community service in the form of working with the poor, elderly, sick etc might open the eyes of some. But I also believe in “3 strikes , you’re out” punishment also. We have raised a couple of generations of young people who have not been allowed and/or forced to take responsibilty for their actions.
    As for the rape culture…. business and/or the media could help if they would quit using “sex” to sell their products. Parents could help by teaching both their sons and daughters the sanctity of their person and that noone has the right to intrude on that no matter what the circumstances.

  4. Todd, do you still feel the same way after knowing similar events happened at UBC and Western? And that there was at least one campus reporting rapes during Orientation Week?
    Seems like a pretty rapey culture to me.

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