The power of a scapegoat

by Maggie Gilman

This week we were confronted with some confusing and albeit shocking news.  News reports flashed: “Goshen College student fabricates rape” and “Prosecutor: Goshen College rape allegation was false.”  Beyond the fact that I find the frenzied media attention on this “false rape accuser” frustrating in light of the fact that it seems to be gathering more attention that the initial rape report itself, I am shocked at the irresponsible journalism that has left gaping holes in its stories.  I am appalled that the newspaper shared this woman’s name, and that they did so without full information, without details about what exactly it means that “she admitted the rape charge was false” or the multiple complications and possibilities this could have going on underneath it.  It is amazing to me that we continue to live in a dream-world that denies the reality that regardless of whether this person lied or not: rape HAPPENS; sexual assault HAPPENS; and it HAPPENS HERE IN OUR COMMUNITY.

This is the power of a scapegoat: where we can get pissed off at a woman who “made up a story about rape,” allowing ourselves to avoid looking at the hard reality that women ARE raped. We can also get angry saying that she has jeopardized the legitimacy that people have worked so hard to keep gaining for rape survivors.  But where is the anger about those (this includes all of us in one way or another) who have failed rape and assault survivors in our intentional or unintentional complacency in a rape society, or participation in stigmatizing victims?  Where is the anger about the appalling system in which so few rapists are convicted, let alone the horrific justice system we use in this country?  Bringing up the prevalence of violence against women is not to suggest that we all live in fear; but I do want to point to the fact that these things do happen, and that maybe one of the reasons we seem so ready and willing to throw violent words at this girl is because it makes us more comfortable.  It is easier to believe that the closeness of rape is a lie than to stare it in the face.  It is easier to keep on ignoring this reality here in our own communities because it is one that is so utterly devastating.

This race to condemn has so deeply saddened me.  Seeing and hearing some of the reactions from Goshen College students and the larger Goshen community has weighed heavy on me.  The quick jump to (in the most extreme cases) crucify this woman, or as Prosecutor Hill announced, the want “to send a message” through her harsh punishment, is severely disappointing. I want to acknowledge that we have no right to retaliate with vengeful and destructive responses.  We need to respond in love, and remember that we do not truly know what is going on. Furthermore, while believing it is important for us to feel what we need to feel in reaction to all of this; we must be careful how we express these feelings, especially those of anger. Speaking as a rape survivor myself, you are not helping me.  Whether or not this person lied about the assault, it does not help if the community judges or rips her apart. In the end, it isn’t helping any of us in this community to waste energy in counterproductive negative discourse that only drains us of our greater capacity to see one another fully and to work together to make our community healthier and safer.

When it comes to my response to this woman, it is irrelevant whether she made the story up or not.  I cannot imagine what she is going through right now, and no one, no matter what they have done, deserves to face difficulties alone.  I choose to possibly disagree with her actions; though I will not claim to know what they are, I don’t have enough information about all of this to make a statement one way or the other.  But I refuse to make her a scapegoat, to push her into a neat, tiny box.  I only speak for myself, not all survivors, but I hope all of us, whoever we are, whatever we’ve experienced, can find it in ourselves to see the wholeness of this person.  That one choice does not define who she is, nor who she can be; and that we can love her, even in the midst of our own confusing feelings and reactions to all of this.

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