Sometimes it’s just 20 minutes of action behind a dumpster. Sometimes it’s just the time it takes to go up and down an elevator. But lives are “deeply altered” nonetheless.
The father of a former Stanford University swimmer convicted of sexual assault made headlines around the world with his plea to the judge hearing his son’s case, a letter that’s stunning in both its passion and its lack of empathy for the victim.
“He will never be his happy go lucky self with that easy going personality and welcoming smile,” wrote an anguished Dan Turner. The boy who loved his ribeye steak and pretzels and chips now “eats only to exist”. The father saw this as a “steep price to pay” for “20 minutes of action”. Brock Turner, champion swimmer with Olympic aspirations, became the victim here as opposed to the half-conscious person he violated behind the dumpster, the one who woke up in a hospital gurney.
The remorse might be real but in the end, it’s all about Brock, his swimming, his career, his life, his appetite for rib eye steaks. It becomes HIS devastation in a bizarre case of victim-switching.
It’s not quite fair to equate this letter, actually written to the judge presiding over the case with a snippet in a society column in an Indian newspaper musing if it’s time to “rethink” the reaction to Tarun Tejpal sexual assault case.
But both stories do exist on the same spectrum – a spectrum of privilege extended to “people like us” where boys will be boys and should be forgiven their trespasses, even a “grave error”, as long as they are our kind of boys.
Brock Turner, after all, says his father, has “expressed true remorse” for his actions that night. And the father can testify to the “devastating impact that it has had” on his son. The remorse might be real but in the end, it’s all about Brock, his swimming, his career, his life, his appetite for rib eye steaks. It becomes HIS devastation in a bizarre case of victim-switching.
Tejpal too we are told “committed a grave error” but the column asks if he deserved such a “vociferous dragging through the coals”. A charge of sexual assault is downgraded to “grave error” and we are asked to see the devastating impact it has had on the alleged perpetrator. It becomes about Tejpal or Turner’s life being ruined. That’s who we are supposed to feel sorry for. As Brock Turner said piously in his statement “I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin a life.”
Tejpal too we are told “committed a grave error” but the column asks if he deserved such a “vociferous dragging through the coals”.
The woman he assaulted replied, “Let me rephrase for you, I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin two lives. You and me. You are the cause. I am the effect. You have dragged me through this hell with you, dipped me back into that night again and again”. Just because one of the two is not named, does not make her not real.
This is a story about rape and assault. This cannot be explained away as a story about good men who had one drink too many. In text messages to the journalist who accused him of disrobing her and assaulting her in the elevator, Tejpal had insisted it was all drunken banter. In his letter to the judge, Dan Turner blames not his son but Stanford University and its “culture of alcohol consumption and partying”.
In fact what we see in both cases is an attempt to blame a larger culture for the actions of an individual. If Turner presents his son as a Midwestern boy lost in California’s den of promiscuity and alcohol, modeled by many of the upperclassmen on his swim team, Tejpal compared his legal travails to “an attack on Indian pluralism by communal forces”.
The individual meanwhile is mostly responsible for a chhoti si bhool ( a small mistake). As Vasundhara Sirnate writes in The Hindu, “What undergirds the chhoti si bhool defence is the idea that even as adults some men cannot and should not be held responsible for their actions. “They have made a mistake. They are not essentially bad people,” is what this defence argues. The problem is if we start using this defence it makes the law useless.”
Tejpal is indeed innocent until proven guilty. He does not deserve a media trial. But that does not mean he deserves a media makeover either.
The law is being asked not to be blind but to remember that Brock Turner was a cleancut Midwestern athlete with a promising future. Likewise in the Tejpal case we are being asked to remember that Tejpal was a liberal lion and this is a time with a “need for strong liberal voices”. This is also a time when there is need for urgent global action on climate change. That does not mean we should turn a blind eye to the charges of sexual harassment against TERI’s R K Pachauri even though that is exactly what happened for the longest time. As Arun George writes in Scoopwhoop, “If India's progressive voices are so weak that they require a man accused of rape to be their champion, you know we're really in trouble.”
Tejpal deserves his day in court. He deserves to make an attempt at a comeback. He has every right to try and re-launch his Thinkfest. I have been to that festival once and been impressed by the names he drew to it and the conversations it spawned. But the the star power of Thinkfest cannot be a defence for Tejpal, it cannot dilute the severity of the charges against him.
Tejpal is indeed innocent until proven guilty. He does not deserve a media trial. But that does not mean he deserves a media makeover either. There was much outrage in the United States when Brock Turner only got sentenced to six months in county jail. But as Jezebel pointed out, shocking as that seemed, Brock got more than 97% of men like him. US Justice Department data shows that too few perpetrators of sexual violence will ever go to jail because of “the overriding fear among many that the adjudication of sexual assault crimes will punish good young men far more than is necessary”.
Tejpal is yet to face his judge. But already we can see an attempt to tell us about the severe impact a conviction might have on him.
The sentencing judge Aaron Persky said while handing out the six month sentence that “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.” Tejpal is yet to face his judge. But already we can see an attempt to tell us about the severe impact a conviction might have on him. Even worse, we are being told about the impact it might have on the “good fight” at a time when “regressive thoughts and actions seem to rule”.
Tarun Tejpal is an important man, an important forthright journalistic voice, whether you agreed with his politics or not. Brock Turner is a promising young man, the All-American Swimmer who had dreams and ambitions. Their lives are in shambles and we can empathize with that. But as the woman Turner assaulted said in her statement, “Your damage was concrete; stripped of titles, degrees, enrollment. My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”
To render the damage even more invisible is wrong. To do it in the name of “strong liberal voices” is a tone-deaf travesty.