Monday, 15 December 2014

Oh, Sorkin (Part One)

Trigger warning: references to a rape storyline.

It's now been a week since The Newsroom reached its penultimate episode that made so many people furious.  The show being what it is, there were plenty of elements for people to fasten their teeth into, but the most stinging criticisms involved a storyline - which I shall now thoroughly spoil, though it has no real bearing on the ongoing plotlines or even really the episode itself - in which a college student sets up a website to name and shame rapists after her own sexual assault, in the certain knowledge that no other punishment is ever likely to be forthcoming for her assailants.

Obviously, with so serious a subject, with so great a risk of triggering people, this is the kind of plot element that's liable to upset and anger no small number of people. This is particularly true when you're dealing with a writer who has come under a great deal of criticism for sexism in his work and his public pronouncements, and even more true when you decide that this is the kind of issue you can shoehorn into a plot about something completely different and then throw casually away.

Having said all that, though, my reaction upon watching the episode was quite different to that of many feminists and allies, and I wanted to explore why that is, because I think there's an interesting question inside all this that needs more promotion than I've seen it get in the mainstream (I suspect it's been thoroughly dissected in plenty of places, but not anywhere I've seen). To state my position ahead of time: I think Sorkin went wrong here at least three times , but the points where I find fault with him don't quite tally with the various criticisms I have read elsewhere.  Obviously, this is at heart a straight white guy announcing he wants to offer thoughts on how much he agrees with feminist critiques of a rape storyline, and those with no interest in hearing that sort of thinking might want to wander off about now.  Or, you know, switch your mind to "hate-read" mode. Whichever you prefer.

In any case, I wanted to split this into two posts, and the first one is likely to be the less contentious, since I'm starting with the areas in which I think Sorkin screwed up. The first I've already mentioned - this is not the kind of storyline you use as a B-plot and then stroll away from. A show in which we spend less time with the girl trying to regain her agency after a sexual assault than we do on the question of whether celebrity-finder apps are a good idea is not one whose priorities we should be comfortable with. Related, the fact that none of the female main characters get to weigh in on the issue in any real way leaves Don's opinions on the website unchallenged by anyone to which the narrative gives equivalent weight. This imbalance allows Don to deep six the story at the end of the episode as part of making a larger point, which both buries the issue itself and means Don is consciously ignoring the stated preferences of the rape survivor, Mary, because he knows best.

All of that are issues surrounding the actual scene which generated so much criticism, though, the actual discussion between Don and Mary.  It's here that I find myself disagreeing with some of that criticism, but like I said, I'll stick here to what I did find problematic, which in this case is Don's ridiculous assertion that he is somehow morally obligated to believe the story of the rapist over the rape victim until and unless the former is convicted in court.

This is a common and transparently idiotic dodge, brought forth like a talisman by any number of people who don't want to be inconvenienced by having to believe things about people that might actually require some action on their part. To underline how ludicrous this position is, let's try a brief thought experiment.  Imagine two housemates put a twenty pound note each on their kitchen table once a week, saving up their money.  Over the course of a year they therefore end up with over two grand on the table, in two separate piles of a little over a grand each.

Then one day one of the piles goes missing. Housemate A accuses housemate B of having taken the money and spent it on booze and blackjack, despite them having previously agreed they were going to spend the money on a ludicrously ostentatious home cinema set-up.  Housemate B for his part insists the money must have been stolen by an intruder.  Both housemates give you statements and offer various pieces of evidence to corroborate their story.

For the Don Keefer Theory of Belief to hold water, you would have to argue that whether you believe Housemate A or Housemate B would depend on which of the two identical piles of money went missing.

There's just no way this can make sense in any theory of belief.  Either one person's story is more compelling, or the other's is, or you find yourself coming down in the middle.  Not one piece of evidence or testimony changes in its plausibility depending on whether the actual remover of the cash let their hand creep six inches to the left before grabbing the wad.  Obviously it makes a difference in court, because in court you have to charge someone with the right crime, but in terms of who did what out in the world, no such absurdly narrow focus exists. [1]

Pretending it does is a way to stay comfortable.  A way to remain privileged. The fact that Sorkin saw no problem having a character espouse so self-serving an idea is a real and severe problem, for which he deserves to be roasted.


[1] One could counter all this by pointing out that there are some people for whom it would be very easy to believe they'd shaft their roommate by spending their own half of the savings but would never steal someone else's money.  But that's again a specific element of the case at hand, not a general rule.  I'm also aware that my legal naivete may mean the example I've constructed doesn't quite work - some wrinkle about communal property or something - but I'm sure with little effort alternative examples could be worked up.


Dan Edmunds said...

Just as a point of clarification

"a college student sets up a website to name and shame rapists after her own sexual assault, in the certain knowledge that no other punishment is ever likely to be forthcoming for her assailants."

Might be just the way you've written that - but that reads as though she set up a website purely to name and shame her own rapists. The story in question was actually she set up a website to encourage and allow others to anonymously name and shame other alleged rapists / sexual predators. Which is of course somewhat different.

I have some thoughts on the scene in question - will await part 2.

darkman said...

Suggestion: Stop watching anything that Sorkin made after the West Wing, you will instantly feel the quality of your life greatly improved.

SpaceSquid said...


I thought putting "shame rapists" rather than "shame her rapists" did the job, but you might well be right. I'll be more clear in Part 2.


Actually I'm one of the eight people who really liked Studio 60. I just have a weakness for ridiculously fast dialogue delivered during a sashay.