Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy for one sort of unpleasantness or another. It is not intended to change anyone’s beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.
Note to Jezebel, Gawker, and Huffington Post: When you quote this post out of context be sure to leave out the text that doesn’t support your misleading headlines.
Have you seen the horrific video of NFL player Ray Rice knocking his wife, Janay, unconscious in an elevator? It looks as if she slapped him a few times and he responded by knocking her unconscious with one blow. It is hard to watch.
The NFL came under great criticism for not coming down hard enough on Ray Rice for domestic abuse. Allegedly, that decision came before the NFL saw the elevator video. Once the video was released, the Ravens and the NFL had no choice – from a business perspective – but to suspend Rice.
Everyone seems to be on the same side of this issue now. When a 200-pound athlete knocks out a smaller woman, it doesn’t matter if she started the fight. Rice’s response was out of line with the threat. It wasn’t likely that his wife’s slaps were going to injure him physically.
There is one person who disagrees with the popular view: Ray Rice’s wife. According to Janay’s Instagram account she supports her husband and disagrees with the suspension for an event that both she and Ray had referred to as “mutual combat.”
Now society has an interesting dilemma. On one hand, domestic abuse is such a huge problem that there really is no option but to come down hard on the perpetrators. And since it is common for spouses to stay in abusive marriages, society feels an obligation to protect people even when they don’t ask for it, on the belief that they should ask for it, or they would if they could.
In this case, the media, the public, and the NFL have decided that their collective opinions about this matter are more important than the opinion of the victim. Or to put it another way, we have as a society infantilized Janay and judged her preferences to be misplaced or relatively unimportant.
And so the NFL has decided to follow Ray’s example and punch his wife, figuratively speaking, by minimizing her wishes and ruining the career and reputation of the Rice family over this matter.
Or have they?
The other possibility is that Janay is a typical abused spouse that needs to leave her husband for safety reasons but is afraid to do so or doesn’t know how. You can’t rule out that possibility. Only the Rice’s know what happens at home.
If society and the NFL follow the wishes of Janay Rice it will be bad for the business of football and it will set an extraordinarily bad example for future domestic violence cases. You wouldn’t want future domestic abusers to think they can get away with their crimes by scaring their spouses to stay quiet. There has to be a credible threat from society that is independent from whether or not a spouse cooperates.
We are all working with incomplete information because we don’t know much about what happened the night of the “mutual combat.” One plausible explanation is that Janay started the slapping and realized too late that football players are trained from youth to slap away oncoming tacklers and blockers. And I don’t think football players are trained to use restraint. None of this excuses Ray, but if Janay believes she has a share of the responsibility, and this was a one-off event – which she would presumably know – then the media and the NFL are making her a victim a second time.
So how do you form an opinion in the face of incomplete information? From our vantage point we can’t know whether or not Janay is a classic abused spouse and needs all the outside help she can get. We also don’t know if she is an intelligent adult who knows what she wants from her life and accepts her share of the responsibility for starting the elevator fight. If society makes the wrong assumptions, we risk double-victimizing Janay by ruining her married life. Or perhaps worse, we risk being seen as tolerating domestic abuse and by doing so we make it worse. There is a big risk if we get this wrong.
In the context of incomplete information, which way would you go? Should we perpetuate sexism by minimizing Janay’s preferences, or should we be seen as tolerating domestic abuse, thus worsening it?