Rape Culture and the Banality of Evil

Almost anyone today is familiar with the term “Rape Culture“, and have either used it to describe our age, or heard it used by someone else in that context. To those unfamiliar with the term, “Rape Culture” describes the product of a societal atmosphere that immerses citizens in rape-related crimes, imagery, and humour such that rape becomes normalized as something common, trivial and even mundane.

On the surface, this term seems fitting: one often hears about cases of sexual assault in our culture–especially on university campuses–and it’s tempting to associate rape with, and blame it on, large groups of boys yelling lewd comments at passing women or advertisements depicting sexual objectification and even abuse.

Upon further analysis, however, I find the term “Rape culture” problematic and an overly generous simplification.

Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt, in defending infamously cruel Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, wrote about what she called “the Banality of evil“. In this work, Arendt suggests that when members of a society become so deeply entrenched in certain values, moral standards, and ways of thinking–no matter how “Evil” they might be–sharing these values and even acting in accordance with them might be for an ordinary person a mundane and banal act rather than a conscious and deliberate sign of Evil.

Perhaps it is my stubborn refusal to believe that any and every person can be so easily morally corrupted, or perhaps it is my strong sense of justice, but I cannot simply fork over the responsibility for sexual assault and violence to “Rape Culture”. It is for the same reason that I so viscerally reject Arendt’s “banality of evil”: not because I deny the dangers that exist for women (I am beyond familiar with the fears of walking alone at night and being followed home), but because despite the strong influencing power of media imagery and “Group-think“, I am not a social moral relativist.

As a non-social moral relativist, I believe that regardless of the “norm” or the socially accepted “modus operandi” in a given society, everyone has an internal moral compass with which they should strive to align their actions. While each person’s moral compass may quite probably vary slightly from another’s–which is perfectly acceptable in many cases–within every society I maintain there have always been, and will always be, plenty of radicals to oppose the collectively promoted values and systems of thought. Some we can name off the tops of our heads, such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King, who led rallies against racially prejudiced practices in their countries, or Einstein who revolutionized scientific thought with his theory of Special Relativity, and some are less widely known, such as Jewish philosopher Baruch de Spinoza who reinvented Jewish philosophy from a completely different angle–which, regrettably, led to his expulsion from his autonomous Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam. In any case, volumes of history are bookended by people who went “against the grain”, so to speak.

Obviously, not every non-conformist is recorded in history. According to social moral relativists, simply putting one’s head down and living one’s own life according to one’s own moral compass is an outstanding achievement. While I support crediting moral non-conformists, I can’t help but question a paradigm whose implications acquit Nazis’ powers of their agency and intention while simultaneously asserting that ordinary German and other European Gentiles–“Righteous Among the Nations” aside–deserve badges simply for not actively turning their neighbors over to the Nazis.

In a similar vein, while the term “Rape culture” may also emphasize the moral conviction of those who stand apart from it, the way in which this term unjustly acquits sexual assaulters and rapists of criminal agency is disproportionately generous.

Why do we construct and insist upon a worldview that holds up NOT committing rape as more radical than rape?

If rape, like Arendt’s notion of evil, has really become so deeply entrenched in our culture to the point of banality, then what is our legal system’s moral justification for punishing ordinary and thus blameless citizens for merely being products of a society that aligns everyone’s moral compasses to its own?

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