Twenty Minutes of Action: An Indefensible Revictimization

BY

I didn’t follow the case of Brock Turner too closely. He’s the Stanford University swimmer who was convicted of raping an unconscious 22-year-old woman. Ultimately, he got six months – with the possibility of a reduction for good behavior – because the judge was concerned that prison would have a “severe impact” on Turner. Many people were upset that the sentence was so lenient. We could have a good discussion about when sentences are too light, when they’re too harsh, when mercy may be called for, etc. but we’re not going to have that particular conversation today. Instead, let’s talk about Brock Turner’s father, Dan Turner.

The senior Turner wrote a letter to the judge requesting no jail time because such a sentence “is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”

When I heard this on the news, my jaw hit the floor. I sat there stunned. Literally. I could not believe what I had just heard.

I hear a lot of horrible things on the news. The candidate you support says horrible things every day. I’ll admit that the candidate I support also says horrible things, maybe once a week. Follow the Middle East: it’s a 24-hour horrible-thing cycle. All the racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, trolling and hate speech that I see online every day pales before “twenty minutes of action.” Why? Because racists, homophobes, anti-Semites, trolls and haters are generally trying to provoke a reaction. Dan Turner was in the middle of pleading for mercy.

One expects a father to seek clemency from a judge. It might be justifiable to try and paint the incident as anomalous. It’s not justifiable to re-victimize his son’s victim with literally the most callous remark I’ve ever heard in my life. Many people speculated that if he was raised by a father with such an attitude, it’s no wonder Brock learned to violate women as he did.

Hanlon’s razor states “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” I’m willing to give Mr. Turner benefit of the doubt that he wasn’t trying to offend. Nevertheless, didn’t someone vet his letter? How could such a thing make it past the first draft?

Turner’s remark trivializes what the victim went through. It delegitimizes what she endured and continues to endure. His words dehumanize and objectify her all over again. How can one ask for mercy by adding insult to injury?

There is a prohibition in the Torah called onaas devarim, which means verbal oppression. It comes from Leviticus 25:17, which says “Do not oppress one another….” This is distinct from monetary oppression, which was covered in 25:14. In something of an atypical move, the Talmud (Baba Metzia 58b) gives a number of reasons why oppressing somebody with words is even worse than the tangible kind of oppression. Among these:

* If I take advantage of you financially, I only damage your bank balance. If I attack you emotionally, I damage you personally;

* I can always return money that I took from another person improperly but I can never fully undo the damage caused by hurtful words.

A number of things are given as examples of onaas devarim, including:

* Asking a shopkeeper about an item when one has no intention of buying it;

* Reminding a person of their past misdeeds;

* Asking someone whose relative was executed to hang a picture;

* Suggesting that someone is responsible for their own suffering.

(This last one is particularly relevant in the case of victims of sexual assault, as defenses typically include blaming the victim and what they call “slut shaming.” News flash: skimpy outfits and alcohol don’t cause rape. Rapists cause rape.)

In addition to the general prohibition against verbally oppressing anyone, there is a specific prohibition against verbally oppressing widows and orphans. The Rambam explains (Hilchos Deios 6:10) that the reason for this is because their spirits have already been crushed by circumstances. It’s never cool to kick a person but it’s especially uncool to kick someone who is already down.

Now, granted, rape victim is not technically on the short list for extra-careful consideration, but use common sense, Mr. Turner! Is it in good taste to further invalidate this young woman’s worth? You know, the young woman raped by your son? Hasn’t your family done enough?

“Ah,” defenders may posit, “Turner was doing this to save his son, so he had a good reason, at least from his point of view!” That’s still no justification. The first chapter of the Book of Samuel tells us how Peninah (who had children) mercilessly teased Chana (who didn’t). Chana prayed and was blessed with a son. Chazal tell us that Peninah was actually righteous and she intentionally provoked Chana so that she would pray – and it worked! Nevertheless, Peninah was punished for her cruelty because the ends didn’t justify the means.

If Peninah was punished for speaking insensitively to Chana for Chana’s own benefit, how can anyone justify throwing Brock Turner’s victim under the bus for his benefit? It’s simply indefensible.

If words can hurt, they can also heal. The Talmud in Baba Basra (9b) says that one who gives money to a needy person receives six blessings (based on Isaiah 58:7-9) but one who gives him kind words receives eleven blessings (based on Isaiah 58:10-12). Dan Turner can’t undo his insensitivity any more than Brock Turner can undo the rape but an apology – a sign of normal human empathy – would be an appropriate start, and a better-late-than-never lesson to Brock in how to treat women.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.