Monday, July 2, 2012

Blame the Messenger for Blaming the Victim

Spurious assumptions doth make blowhards of us all.

This is a rule by which I daily try to write.  I'm brimming with personal opinions, half-baked ideas, and presumptions regarding a host of topics.  As are most of us.

But I try to honor the intelligence of you, my reader, and protect my own reputation by avoiding the common blogging trap of reading too much into stories I hear, or interpreting the correlations facts may or may not have with one another.

"Spurious" can be defined as an inferior or downright false causal relationship.  It usually happens when we develop a preconceived notion of how something happened, or we're biased towards a particular outcome, and we act - whether we realize it or not - with a view towards securing that outcome.

For journalists and bloggers, it may make for some eye-popping copy and attention-grabbing headlines, but over time, spurious assumptions produce a jaded audience, as readers become more suspicious - or apathetic - of the things you think you have to say.

I'm likely guilty of this literary sin from time to time, as the roller-coaster statistics of this blog's readership might confirm, but I actively seek facts and proofs so that what I write about is as grounded and non-spurious as possible.  I wish other writers - especially those who write for Christian organizations - would try to be as careful.

Blaming the Victim?

Take, for example, a wholly unnecessary and embarrassingly fraudulent article on the Her-meneutics section of ChristianityToday.com by Katelyn Beaty regarding the bullied school bus monitor in suburban Rochester, New York.  Beaty tries to sound objective, but four paragraphs into her article posted on June 26, she's actually blaming 68-year-old Karen Klein for not staunching the abuse a bunch of fourth-grade brats were hurling her way.

And yes, my use of the term "brats" is being objective!

Anyway, from her own remarks earlier in her article, we learn that Beaty is now in her late 20s, since she was in middle school in 1997.  Klein is how old?  Old enough to be retired, but she's still working as a school bus monitor.  It's one thing for a woman almost 40 years younger to assume that Klein should have taken a strong stand and administered some sort of authoritarian posture on that rowdy bus, but Beaty is writing for an evangelical publication.  A higher standard is implied, if not required.

Sure, the struggle between knowing when to turn the other cheek and stand up for one's self is as old as Christianity.  And plenty of people who have not affiliated themselves with organized religion have pilloried Klein for being a wuss and not standing up for herself.  While I have a hard time not assuming that the same people who have come out against Klein aren't themselves parents of bullies, I have to credit Beaty with correctly pointing out that there may be many reasons why kids are bullies.  But doesn't marginalization of a bully's victim risk excusing the bullies' behavior?

Let's consider two primary plausibilities for why Klein did not strike out against her tormenters.

1. Lawsuits.  Is Beaty aware of how scared most public school district employees are these days of being accused of assault?  Kids lie all the time, and parents - particularly parents of bullies - will take their side almost every time.  Some teachers have come out and said they would not have been as passive as Klein, but do those teachers work in as litigious a state as New York?  If the kids were bullying another kid, who knows but if Klein would have intervened swiftly and strongly, since that was her job?  Her being an adult, however, put her own predicament into a new world of legal peril.

2. Temperament.  In every interview I've seen of Klein, she's smiling, trying to brush the whole thing off, and saying she has no intention of pursuing criminal charges - even before lawyers decided that since nothing physical happened, there was little proof to support such charges.  It's entirely likely that it's we in the general public who have made the most out of this.  As she was being bullied, Klein has said she just figured she'd have to chalk it up to the end of the school year ending badly for her.  There was no malice that she's expressed; only sorrow.

Backseat Riding? Or Writing?

Instead, Beaty seems to lament Klein's lack of malice.  She complains, "just as disturbing as these cruel taunts... is that Klein never responds. An adult with the clear authority in the situation... Klein stays seated, eventually crying. The scene is both heart-wrenching... and a bit unsettling."

The entirety of Beaty's sloppy treatise pivots on one flimsy sentence:  "I wonder, however, if Klein sat passively because she had come to believe, somewhere along the way, that good people 'rise above' extreme personal offense and brush off insults. Or, in Christian parlance, that they 'turn the other cheek.'"

So, does Beaty mean good people don't "rise above" extreme personal offense?  Christians shouldn't "turn the other cheek?"  She says she doesn't mean that, but this is obviously not the news story to use in an effort to explain the cases for when believers need to stand our ground.  I fully agree with Beaty in that Christians - particularly with the freedoms we're afforded in the United States - don't need to reflexively turn into doormats when we're treated wrongly.  But she needs to find a genuine example of that, because Klein's case isn't one.  Beaty practically admits she's got the wrong case when she says she "wonders."

"Wondering" and even appearing to mock the sizable amount of money total strangers gave to Klein online does not justify crafting a whole article which ends up blaming the victim.  Almost unbelievably, Beaty sums up her lament by chiding, "Klein very well may have done a good thing, but she didn’t do the best thing."

How does she know?

Believe me, mine is not a spurious assumption:  Beaty has committed both bad journalism and a non-Christlike assessment of a fairly open-and-shut case.  Is she not aware that the parents of all four children in this video have admitted that their actions were deplorable, and they consented without arbitration or appeal to the heavy discipline meted out by their school district?  A school district which has not described Klein's actions as wrong or inappropriate, likely because they know the tricky legal tightrope they'd have to walk by doing so.

By wallowing in spurious assumptions, Beaty ends up disqualifying herself from writing a truly evocative article on the times Christ's followers have a mandate to stand up for themselves.  Granted, such times don't seem to come around very often.  Christ allowed Himself to be crucified, Stephen allowed himself to be stoned, Paul ignored his chains and welcomed his death in prison...  The most I can come up with is our ability as American evangelicals to vote our consciences and not capitulate to popular hedonism so we can avoid the taunts of people who are agitated by our different worldview.

Then again, Beaty is so much younger than Klein... maybe Klein has seen enough of how the world works to know that patience during distress - regardless of whether we believe in the Author of patience - can bring its own reward.

Or are the anonymous well-wishers who showered Klein with cash online not acting Biblically, either?  The frustrating thing is, with Beaty, it's hard to tell.  Which is the bad thing about Beaty's type of article.

The more spurious assumptions we find in evangelical journalism, the worse it becomes for all of us.
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