I’m not talking about the kind of icons who run spandex-clad across a comics page, or slaughter legions of brown people on the silver screen. I’m talking about the sort we have in our workaday world; politicians, actors, it doesn’t matter. We raise them up on pedestals, and we insist that they be morally perfect. When they fail to maintain a standard of behavior that we don’t hold ourselves to we pretend to be shocked while our secret hearts consume every detail of their falls with masturbatory glee.
I think Laurie Penny overlooks this in her recent article on Assange in the Independent. She’s not wrong in that we can, and should, insist both on freedom of speech and transparency of governance as well as women’s rights. I’m not trying to “mansplain” her argument away, because I, personally, find no tension that must be resolved within the idea of acknowledging the good that Assange has done via WikiLeaks, and insisting that he be called to account for any rape or sexual assault he might have committed.
Unfortunately, most of us are brought up to believe the ad hominem argument is a valid form of argumentation. For those not familiar with the ad hominem it translates as, “argument to the man.” It’s a tactic in which rather than addressing the substance of the argument you attack the character of the person presenting that argument. In short, “Assange is a rapist, so obviously his work, and thus the work of WikiLeaks, cannot be trusted.”
It doesn’t help that Assange and WikiLeaks have themselves presented the charges pending in Sweden as being exactly that. Which among other things doesn’t help the cause of feminists and social justice workers, because whatever Assange’s intentions, whether or not he’s guilty, dismissing the allegations as simply part of a smear campaign add to the already problematic environment that surrounds rape prosecutions. To put it another way dismissing these charges contributes to the perpetuation of rape culture.
But this post really isn’t supposed to be about Assange per se. It’s supposed to be about his supporters. The ones Ms. Penny talked to, and the ones pontificating in the media. Is there some misogyny in play? I do not doubt it. Are we seeing rape culture at work? I would be the last person to say no. Yet equally at play is our refusal to accept the fact that Julian Assange is only human, and might very well be a shitbag of a human. After all, we ask ourselves, could some rapist shitbag really be a hero?
The answer is that, no, a rapist shitbag can’t be a hero. Rape, alongside slavery, is the most morally abhorrent crime that one can commit. It tops murder by a wide margin. If Assange committed rape we shouldn’t regard him as any kind of hero… but that doesn’t invalidate the message he spread through WikiLeaks.
So long as we insist on moral perfection in our icons, and believe that media delivered ad hominems are a perfectly valid claim none of this is going to change. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Julian Assange or K-Stew. Nowhere on this planet is there a morally infallible human. Quite frankly the vast majority of us don’t even follow an internally consistent ethical system, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that as a culture we find the equivalent of, “Eww, Billy eats boogers; he can’t be my friend!”, to be a valid justification for claiming we should ignore accusations of rape.