Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Memetic Pathology of Rape Culture

     People have been talking a lot about rape culture lately, and how to eradicate it. I'm completely and enthusiastically in favour of this project, but I think it's important we understand what we're up against from a memetic pathology perspective. In particular, I want to argue that rape culture is more like cancer than it is like an infectious disease, and so we should tailor our approach to it accordingly.

     Eradicating an infectious disease is, in principle, easy. All you have to is kill off all the virus or bacterium or parasite that causes the disease, and that's that. Infectious pathogens are organisms that have evolved sophisticated tricks to get into the body of the host and use it to reproduce more pathogens. These pathogens aren't simple; they are products of countless generations of natural selection, honing and refining their genome to enable them to overcome the various immunities in hosts that are also the product of countless generations of natural selection. Once the last polio virus is destroyed, no one will ever again contract polio, because a common influenza virus isn't clever enough to just spontaneously re-invent for itself all those neat gadgets polio had to sneak into a cell. In short, it's really hard to start an infectious disease from scratch.
     If rape culture were like an infectious disease, eradicating it would be a simple matter of not teaching boys to rape. Without being taught that rape was okay, goes the theory, they'd never get it into their heads to force themselves on girls without consent.
     But that's kind of silly. I mean, the idea of raping someone is not exactly rocket science. Toddlers quite spontaneously and independently discover the secret of hitting people, so any idiot can come up with the idea of using force to get one's way. And if the way one wants to get is with someone else's body, then it doesn't take a great deal of imaginative genius to devise a scheme to which we would properly attach the label "rape".

     Now think about cancer. Although it may be triggered by a virus or some environmental factor, cancer starts out as something going haywire in the finely-tuned instructions that control when and how a cell divides. (Most cells aren't supposed to divide at all, once they become specialized for a particular function as a nerve cell, muscle cell, blood cell, etc.) The cell replicates when it's not supposed to, often growing into a tumour that interferes with the proper functioning of the tissue it's in. Now, cell replication is still a remarkably complex process, and there's an awful lot of biochemistry involved, including genes that perform vitally important functions in a healthy cell. But in a cancer, these otherwise healthy genes and sugars and lipids are put to work supporting the out-of-control cancerous replication. The basic mistake that turns the whole process cancerous is just a dumb mistake, not some fiendishly clever set of genes from a highly evolved virus. Any idiot can toss a monkey wrench into the machinery and make it start malfunctioning.
     The same is true, I think, of rape culture. Any idiot can come up with the idea of forcing sex on someone else. Most of the time when that happens, the person immediately recognizes why it would be morally wrong, and it stops there. (Likewise, most potentially cancerous mutations never develop into tumours.) But occasionally, the idea will get past the immune-response of that morality meme, often because we human beings are just so diabolically clever at rationalizing justifications for why we deserve what we want and what we propose to do about it isn't really that bad, after all, and in fact maybe she really wants it and just needs to be given the opportunity to admit it and... etc. etc. etc. 
     I think, then, that rape culture is best understood as consisting of the kinds of cognitive tools that facilitate such rationalization. There are a few truly pathological memes in this complex, such as the moral concept of the slut (which I'd love to see eradicated from our vocabulary), but I suspect that most of the ideas that contribute to facilitating rape-thinking may actually perform useful cultural functions, just as most of the genes that allow a cancer cell to grow also perform important roles in healthy cells. But they likely could benefit from some refinement, to make them less susceptible to excusing rape.
     For example, consider the idea of consent, the absence of which turns sex into rape. But notice how closely the concept of  "consent" is to "permission", and thus how it ties into our way of thinking about sex as something done by men to women, rather than something two do together. Patients consent to treatment by surgeons who often work while the patient is unconscious. So even when we take pains to talk about the importance of consent, we are still unwittingly using and reinforcing a conception of sex where the verbs are all transitive ones, with active subjects and passive objects who are screwed with or without consent. 
     We could, instead, talk about consensus instead of consent. They both mean the same thing, actually, but "consensus" emphasizes the agency of all parties to an agreement, rather than implying a passive permission-granter. In fact, it goes farther than that, because our talk of men requiring the consent of women tends to reinforce a blindness to the role of male volition here. We blame women for implying their consent; we don't even think about men's consent because we just presume that a Manly Man must always be willing. And that, of course, is an idea that is central to rape culture.

     So my point here is that it isn't enough to say we need to stop teaching boys that rape is okay. It isn't even enough to say we need to start teaching them not to rape. Rape culture is a cancer that metastasized ages ago, and has become thoroughly integrated into even the tissues we're using to try to fight it. We need aggressive meme therapy, to replace even apparently helpful memes like "consent" with alleles like "consensus" that are more resistant to facilitating and rationalizing rape-thinking. That means we need to be a lot more conscious and reflective about how we think and talk about sex and sex roles generally. It's going to be tiresome, and we're going to be sick of the cure long before we're well. It's going to be especially tiresome and draining on those men who take pains to remind us that #notallmen are rapists, because those of us who aren't rapists are prone to think we're cured and don't need any treatment. 
     Sorry, guys. It really is just like cancer that way.