Sin and Sickness: Understanding Social Injustice

I recognize that this is a trying time for all members of the Allegheny community as we grapple with Prof. Kirk Nesset’s arrest and resignation.  Like many others on campus, I remain dedicated to helping the college enact its professed values, even—or especially—when it seems like those values are in doubt.  With this goal in mind, my piece interrogates the “confessional-therapeutic” framework that often guides our responses to incidents of public trauma or scandal.  Although certainly not the only thing invoked in campus responses, this framework nonetheless appears as one of the—if not the most—prominent ways of understanding the original incident and its aftermath.  This should come as no surprise, given that a similar logic governs how larger U.S. culture handles similar events.  Like all discourses, it both enables and constrains what we consider sayable and thinkable in the first place—and it gains much of its power by operating more-or-less beneath the radar.

As its name suggests, a confessional-therapeutic framework merges morality and medicine by linking the revelation of sin (the key to restoring moral order) with the revelation of personal trauma (the key to both individual and cultural healing). It thus positions community members as the very kind of people who need confession and therapy so that they can emerge pure and healthy.  Such a framework justifies (or even commands) moral outrage and emotional catharsis as the cure for any threat to the community’s sense of its own decency and integrity.  This cure rests on the scapegoating process, whereby the community sacrifices one (or more) of its own in the hopes of absolution and purification. The source of the problem becomes imagined as a single person (or certain type of person); if we could simply purge such bad seeds, surely we could restore moral order and community health.

I saw just this sort of framework play out during Friday’s campus-wide meeting in Shafer.  The meeting’s structure itself positioned the upper administration not just as listeners, but, in my metaphor, as priests and therapists, while positioning students, correspondingly, as parishioners and patients.  Such a structure establishes a clear power relationship between speakers and listeners, although not perhaps the one we might expect.  After all, priests and therapists do not simply listen; they are invested with the power to determine whether souls are saved or whether psychological healing has occurred.  Their ability to make such judgments rests on an implicit demand that parishioners and patients replay the very trauma the confessional-therapeutic mode is meant to mitigate.  Even further, one must restage that trauma in the appropriate, expected terms, namely as a result of individual failure or injury, sin or sickness.  One must also confess suffering as a pre-requisite for performing the proper type of moral outrage, positioned as a form of healing catharsis.  In these kinds of spaces, personal stories of trauma can easily act as rhetorical trump cards, especially when detached from any political or systemic analysis. After all, what can one say in the wake of people revealing their past experiences with sexual abuse and racism?  Can one say anything? Far from spurring further conversation, then, these stories often inadvertently shut down avenues of inquiry that fall outside the confessional-therapeutic realm.  Thus, a confessional-therapeutic approach can have silencing effects even as it gestures towards “breaking the silence.”

In what follows, I pose a variety of questions disallowed by confessional-therapeutic logic.  They are precisely the questions we need most right now, even though they are also precisely the questions that are deemed out-of-bounds, insensitive, or even immoral.  As Prof. Joe Tompkins’ Campus op-ed explains in more detail, what we usually considered mainstream (non-pornographic) U.S. media culture is rife with images that sexualize young girls and women in objectifying, dehumanizing ways, all in the name of profit.  In fact, U.S. culture sexualizes young girls and women so frequently that we treat it as normal, natural, and commonsensical—but only if it comes from big media conglomerates and not from the computers of individual “perverts.”  For example, why are popular TV shows like Toddlers & Tiaras almost never considered forms of pornography, let alone child pornography? Who gets to decide whether something qualifies as child pornography in the first place?  Why do we express moral outrage when individual “perverts” are caught, all the while continuing to consume portrayals of young girls and woman as infantilized, dehumanized sexual objects?  How might dominant U.S. culture’s treatment of young girls and women encourage some straight white men to collect and distribute child pornography?  Why do we often frame such incidents as solely matters of individual sin or sickness, rather than as also products of our culture’s dominant expectations for straight white masculinity?  Why is this vision of straight white masculinity itself almost never on trial?

Just as a confessional-therapeutic framework may lead us to treat child pornography as self-evident, it may also lead us to treat words like “pervert,” “creepy,” or “sick” as self-evident, foreclosing careful consideration of the history and force of such terms.  Although folks who deployed these terms may have intended only to refer to Kirk, the words themselves cannot be separated from their historical role in upholding systems of privilege and oppression.  Coupled with language’s tendency not to behave itself and stay safely within the boundaries of our intentions, these histories can easily lead us to widen our pool of potential scapegoats.  It is not that far a leap from blaming Kirk to blaming anyone historically associated with “deviant” sexuality and gender presentation.  This includes not only the LGBTQ+ community, but people of color, disabled people, poor people, etc.  One of the key pillars of racist oppression, after all, rests on the notion that brown and black people are naturally hyper-sexual and hyper-procreative.  These characteristics supposedly “prove” their inferiority, removing them from the realm of proper citizenship and scapegoating them as thugs, criminals, jezebels and welfare queens.

Moral certitude is thus a dangerous thing insofar as it compels us to become what rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke calls “rotten with perfection.”  On the other hand, moral relativism will not do either.  If all perspectives are equally valid, then we have no grounds upon which to make ethical judgments about better or worse ideas, values, or courses of action.  So what is left to us without moral certitude or moral relativism?  A teachable moment that encourages us to think beyond the narrow parameters established by a confessional-therapeutic framework.  A teachable moment that helps us connect our experiences at Allegheny with the larger culture in which we also live, a culture that treats the personal as separable from the political and privileges the personal over the political, both of which paper over the continued operation of systems of oppression and privilege. A teachable moment that insists on the history and force of language, helping us recognize that we do not simply use language, it also uses us, often in ways we do not intend.  A teachable moment that insists on the inter-dependence between personal experiences and cultural, political, and economic systems.  Only then can we address the types of change needed to make living together less traumatic and more just.