Thursday, October 8, 2009

Equality in justice: Cognitive dissonance and fame

Having blogged about both the Polanski case and that of David Mitchell (Susan Smart) in Utah, I was intrigued to read this sociological analysis of the divergent media coverage of the two cases, over at one of my favorite blogs, Everyday Sociology. It's always fascinating to analyze the unstated assumptions and biases in media coverage of legal cases, assumptions that both reflect and reinforce public attitudes.

Guest essay by Sally Raskoff*

Two cases involving the rape of a young girl have been in the news: one involving Roman Polanski's arrest and the other about Elizabeth Smart's court testimony. While these cases have the "adult male-minor female" rapes as their basic similarity, most other things have been very different, especially in news reports and public reactions.

The "Polanski" case actually involves this Academy Award winning director's flight from sentencing after his guilty plea and conviction in the rape of the 13-year-old girl. After 32 years, he was arrested recently in Switzerland to await extradition back to the United States for sentencing and additional charges of evading justice. The news reports focus on what a terrible time he's had in life, from his family’s losses in the Holocaust to the murder of his pregnant wife by the Manson "family", and on the fabulous movies he's produced since living in Europe after he fled Los Angeles.

Until recently, little had been mentioned of the rape survivor, who is now an adult woman. A recent article fully identifies her and discusses the apparent civil settlement in which Polanski allegedly was to pay her half a million dollars, although no public documentation can confirm that she received those funds. Her lawyers' requests to the court for him to pay the settlement past its due date cease about the time she wrote a public letter stating that she thinks he should be able to return to the country, ostensibly to attend the Academy Awards show when he was nominated in 2002.

The "Smart" case involves the nine month long abduction of Utahan Elizabeth Smart. Her alleged kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell, subjected her to a "plural marriage" ceremony and according to Smart repeatedly raped her. She is now 21 and gave her testimony at the mental competency hearing of Mitchell just before leaving on her religious mission to France. Mitchell is cast as a religious fanatic who told her that he was doing what the lord wanted him to do. As of this writing, he has not yet been convicted of the crime as it has not yet been established if he is mentally competent to stand trial.

Let's look at these cases sociologically.

Note the language used in the reporting of each case. Is it clear who the victim is in each case?

Many news reports and editorials about the Polanski case lament his treatment by the justice system, and some even suggest that he is the victim. Some articles discuss the cost of bringing him back to court, which makes the taxpayers the victim. Some articles focus on how the rape survivor, the actual victim, said that he should be free to live his life and if she says that, well, we should let her decide, which reinforces the idea that he is the victim.

The Smart articles focus on her as the rape survivor and certainly do not cast Mitchell as a victim. They cast him as crazy or as a crafty rapist who acts like a religious fanatic so as not to take the blame for his actions.

The headlines use "Polanski" and "Smart", not "Mitchell" or "Geimer."

Polanski's name is certainly a familiar one since he is famous. Smart has become famous as an icon of parental fear -- the girl who was abducted from her bedroom at night. As is typical in rape cases, Samantha Geimer's name was withheld when she was a minor yet she herself went public when she wrote the letter in support of Polanski. Mitchell is not a name familiar to people even though most know that some man abducted and raped Elizabeth Smart.

From this point forward, I will refer to the "Smart" case as the Mitchell case.

Note the basic features of each case: an adult man raped a young girl.

Is this contested in either case? Yes and no. Mitchell has been in a mental institution since his arrest in 2003 and the recent hearing was to establish whether or not he could stand trial. Polanski testified that he did the crime (although in his plea agreement he plead guilty to "unlawful sex with a minor") and his latest issues revolve around his flight from the justice system to escape sentencing and serving more time. Mitchell has not been convicted yet Polanski has. However, in the news articles, Polanski's guilt is downplayed and Mitchell's is assumed.

Note the social class differences in each case.

While Polanski is clearly a member of the upper socioeconomic strata, Mitchell and his co-defendant wife are in the lower strata. Polanski was able to flee to Europe, continuing to make his films and generate his substantial income. While the social class status of Ms. Geimer is not fully apparent, it is likely that she and her family live a middle class life, even if she did not receive the settlement. The Smart family are firmly in the upper middle class of suburban Salt Lake City, while the Mitchell couple were basically homeless and firmly ensconced in the lower echelon of society’s social class levels.

Social class alone can explain much of the dynamics of these cases. Those with the higher class status tend to gain more favorable coverage in the press. Polanski received more favorable coverage than his victim did, and Smart certainly received more media attention than her abductor did.

One might hope that people who have been victimized would receive more careful and supportive press coverage, this certainly didn't happen in the Polanski case.

Note the issues of fame and social power in each case.

Social power derives from social class but also from fame. Smart was featured on America's Most Wanted and has spoken in public and to Congress about sexual predator issues and legislation.

Most particularly in the Polanski case, fame insulates the perpetrator from paying his full debt to the justice system. So much so that some even call into question his guilt even though that had been firmly established in court. (See Harvey Weinstein's quote about the "so-called crime" in the Los Angeles Times). Reaction to the Polanski case avoids discussion of his guilt in this crime of rape and focuses on other issues that are not salient. Consider how Mr. Weinstein might react if a female family member of his had been the victim in this case - might he advocate the release of that person as he does Polanski?

The exploitation of women in the entertainment industry is a related topic -- some may not see why having sex with someone at a photo shoot was wrong -- even if she was underage and under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Some also point to the mother who dropped her off at the house where the rape took place as culpable.

However, only the rapist is responsible for the rape, no matter what bad decisions others might have made.

What isn't being talked about?

In the Polanski case, the exploitation of women is not a topic that many are choosing to discuss. How many other girls and women have been raped by people with power over them? We’ll never know, especially if those powerful people are not held to the legal standards that govern our society.

Absent from the discussion of the Mitchell case are the cultural underpinnings of how religion played a role in the abduction and rapes. The "plural marriage" as it was called when she was first rescued, was code for rape yet the word "rape" was not uttered for some time after she was freed. That this particular crime took place in a specific religious and cultural environment with a history of patriarchy (and, decades ago, of plural marriage) isn’t a coincidence. Elizabeth Smart was raised, as most of us are, in a culture of male dominance and female obedience.

It is also likely that Smart, like Patty Hearst and many other children abducted by sexual predators, was experiencing something akin to the Stockholm Syndrome. When she was first discovered, she did not readily identify herself. When held long enough under certain circumstances, people may "go along" with their captors and not escape when they might have had the chance.

So, how can we explain the different ways that we are reacting to these cases?

While both cases have at their core the rape of a 13- or 14-year-old girl by an adult man, public discussion and reaction to these cases is notably different. Social class, power, and fame all have their influences yet cognitive dissonance is also taking place.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when people have to reconcile two conflicting ideas at the same time. We often try and alter one of the ideas to be consistent with the other. For instance, people generally want to like and respect people with fame and power. When those people do bad things, we can react in many different ways but in the Polanski case, so many years after the event, some want to believe he paid his debt to society by having lived such a troubled life. Thinking of someone as both a good person and a rapist is very difficult to reconcile. Normally we decide that someone who commits rape is no longer a good person. In this example, many people, especially many in the entertainment industry, have chosen to downplay his actions to maintain the idea that their conflicting image of him as a good person.

But the justice system doesn’t see it this way, and after all, time spent living in a Swiss chalet isn't the same as "doing time." How do you think we would talk about the case if Elizabeth Smart's alleged rapist had fled the country for more than three decades and evaded justice?

*Reproduced with the written permission of the author. Dr. Raskoff is Chair of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at Los Angeles Valley College.

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