For what it’s worth

OK, here goes. I’ve been fretting about this Polanski business ever since his arrest – like practically everyone else in the western world I hadn’t given it more than the occasional thought before that, which is part of what makes it all so problematic – because it is problematic, however much people would prefer it not to be. And I’ve found myself flip-flopping in line with whatever I’ve found myself reading, but not happy, or not entirely happy, or entirely not happy when Woody Allen threw his ill-advised oar in. I’ve been shocked by the details in the trial transcript, which I’m sure you’ll have read by now, perturbed by the knee-jerk support of people in the film business, perturbed, more ambiguously, by the people whose rage seems so insistent, and personal, as though they’d been drugged themselves, and sodomised (because abortion was already an issue?), and wondered, as the girl must have done at some point during what should have been a photo session (though for what? with whom?), where her mother was and why she’d been left alone with this famous, influential man, as though these people – columnists, opinion-makers, moralists – were victims themselves. As though they’d been raped themselves, and had only just remembered, because, let’s face it, every journalist in the western world has known for three decades – during which they watched The Pianist (*****) and Frantic (****) and Oliver Twist (**) – what Polanski did, and remained silent, as though the girl had never existed. This isn’t what they say now, of course. But the strange thing, when you reach the punch line of most of these intensely-written and passionate articles, is that it doesn’t seem to be about the girl at all. The people who appear to be most upset don’t put themselves in her shoes, but in those of her parents, as though the only way the abuse of a teenager can be appreciated is through the idea of one’s emotional property, one’s own child, being damaged, although this didn’t appear to be an issue at the time, to the people (person?) whose child she was. What about her? I wonder. Why can’t we ask ourselves what it might have been like to be her? Isn’t that vivid, and dreadful, enough? But the big question seems to be: How would you feel if he’d done that to your daughter? And to deal with this sense of displaced outrage these people invoke the notion of justice, that vast transparent edifice in which all deserts are just. Suddenly all their capacity for empathy, employed so liberally (if that isn’t too dirty a word) in defence of an imaginary victim’s putative parents (How would you feel…?), is replaced by the law, the law that treats all of us as one, as equals, whether we’re Nazi war criminals or their victims, or their victims’ children. Well, I can’t argue with that. That’s what law does, it’s inexorable, and indifferent, and grinds on, and so on, and we couldn’t live (safely) without it. And, of course, that’s what it ought to be doing with Polanski, and now that it is I only wonder, if perhaps it had all been a little clearer after he’d plea bargained and then run scared because it looked as though someone, a judge, was about to pull a fast one, whether it might not have been better done three decades ago, when the crime took place. Still, this is what justice does, and it does it by pretending that the state of the judicial art it applies has a kind of permanence and isn’t influenced by mood and ethical fashions, but somehow rises above all that, and is atemporal, and belongs to all of us. And as a social being, and respecter of justice, I respond to that, however much it suspends disbelief. But justice isn’t all we have. Because we know that justice may be absolute, but the truth is never that. The truth is temporal, and relative, and riddled with doubt. Maybe what our heart of hearts should be concerned with is not what justice requires, but what it must be like to be the other, to put ourselves not only in the easy, blood-stained, commodious shoes of the victim, but in the narrower, less forgiving, toe-pinching footwear of the perpetrator.

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5 Responses to For what it’s worth

  1. Anonymous says:

    Just had to comment about this one – not about Roman Polansky but the reaction of families, etc.Sure you're noticed that they always talk about THEIR loss, THEIR anguish and THEIR MISERY. They never spend very long talking about the victim.Why? Because they are on television and it must then follow that we are desperately interested in THEM and their devastation! Joanna

  2. Anne says:

    Maybe what our heart of hearts should be concerned with is not what justice requires, but what it must be like to be the other, to put ourselves not only in the easy, blood-stained, commodious shoes of the victim, but in the narrower, less forgiving, toe-pinching footwear of the perpetrator. A lot of verbiage has been spilled because the filmmakers put themselves in his shoes so readily.

  3. Yes, attention does seem to validate rather more than perhaps it should, Joanna!Absolutely, Anne, but what they also did – wrongly in my view – was to suggest that the judicial system should do the same. If we weren't able to empathise we might not even need laws. As it is, unilateral empathy makes or vengeful or (as in this case) over-forgiving, while universal empathy renders us utterly incapable of action. That's where the law steps in…

  4. Anne says:

    Oh, I agree! You'd expect a lawyer to agree. Yet merely asking for this case to go through due process (without using emotional language, without even airing the question of sentence) seems to invite cries of "witch hunt". There's nothing new about unsavoury stories from Hollywood. Nothing new about public avidity for details of sex crimes, either. There is a lot of shrieking from both sides on this one because, unusually, there *is* another side. Or at least, a side we don't usually hear from. It was the petition that made this so different, the indignant assumption of the right to immunity by a group of privileged people on behalf of one of their own. Politicians and newspaper columnists pitched in with their support. It seemed as if the world was losing sight of the facts. The petition called it "a case of morals" (!) and suggested that the arrest had a political motive. Perhaps it did – but now he's arrested he can't be either kept or let go without an argument being made and won. Justice delayed is justice denied. The victim is older now and wants to forget about it. I bet that's true of many other victims of rape too. (Not least of her reasons for wanting it droppped is the slagging-off she suffered from his supporters when the case was first brought, so it's a bit rich of Polanski's men to adduce her as a reason to drop it now, and as an excuse to lock down discussion of the case.) Weak enforcement of the law in areas like this doesn't do anything to discourage other rich and influential people from taking advantage of those who seek their patronage. And there will never be a shortage of young people wanting a career in lights.Sady has a trenchant take on all this.

  5. Whew … you said a mouthful, brother, and amen to it. Put "children" and "sexuality" into the same sentence and all reasonable discussion comes to a halt. I, too, would like to talk about the perverted worship of fame that makes parents push their children into the arms of the Polanskis (or Michael Jacksons) of the world — abandoning whatever sense of caution or self-preservation that would ordinarily make them think thrice. And I'd like to talk about the way "victims" of rape or sexual abuse must remain victims, always and forever, for the rest of their lives, no matter what else happens to them or what they do or say (something Camille Paglia wrote about so brilliantly) and can never, ever escape that label. Because to escape it would shake the entire edifice of political and social righteousness that passes for a climate of justice in an existence that is, by definition, unjust…. And then there's the law, as you say, which cases like this expose for what it sometimes is: a rusty, inadequate tool. I'm not sure what good it does to lock Polanski up now, just like I'm always ambivalent about the social good that's achieved by making 92-year-old, cancer-ridden, half-dead Nazis sit in the dock to be tried. (Before anyone flames, I'm not saying they shouldn't be prosecuted; I'm just saying it brings up ambivalence.) Sigh. Anyway, good on ya and well done.

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