November 9, 2017

LIEBERMAN | Forgiveness Pt. 2: On Chris Brown, R. Kelly, and Kevin Spacey

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Two weeks ago, I wrote a column on forgiveness. On how after retribution, rehabilitation and a really long time,we as a society should progress enough to provide prisoners with a certain type of humanity. In case you missed my last piece, it focused on Michelle Jones — a woman, who, after years of physical abuse, became pregnant from rape. She abused this child, who ended up dying after she left him in her apartment for days. He was four years old. So, Jones went to prison. She did her time. She reformed. It’s the story we all want to hear: a convict emerges from the prison system as a citizen who repented and is now ready to contribute to society. Jones is now pursuing a PhD at NYU after having her acceptance from Harvard rescinded on the basis of her supposed un-forgive-ability.

Time passes and more stories snatch up the spotlight. Kevin Spacey has now been accused by 13 victims/survivors of attempted rape and sexual harassment. Actor Anthony Rapp was the first to come forward, describing an assault that occurred when he was only 14 years old. Spacey has been greatly vilified, dropped from Netflix’s House of Cards series, and generally, rightfully, berated by the public for his horrific behavior. Making worse of a bad situation, Spacey also took the opportunity to come out as a gay man among these accusations, adding to false and harmful stereotypes of gay men having “inappropriate” sexual conduct.

My fellow columnist Ara Hagopian tackled this issue last week. I respect much of his work, and I’ve enjoyed reading his columns on Greek life, which took a firm stance that I myself avoided. I found his pieces laudable. In a way, he said all the right things, writing about how discussions of abuse should be victim-centric and how pedophilia is abhorrent. He took an anti-death penalty position, which I share. His column was seeped with empathy in a context where it’s hardest to give. I really only have one bone to pick with Hagopian: the title. The title is the only place where Kevin Spacey was mentioned. For the following reasons, it never should’ve been brought up at all.

1.)   Spacey is currently facing no judicial punishment — let alone the prospect of the death penalty. There will always be internet trolls declaring perpetrators “deserve to be shot.” I haven’t heard this argument put forth in the exact context of Spacey, but I don’t doubt that it has been. I just doubt that anyone in a position of power would deem it legitimate.

2.)   Spacey is rich, white and cisgender. History gives us every reason to believe that when all is said and done, he will be okay. He will not be sent to any electric chair, and he will probably get a deal for a reality television show or tell-all documentary within five years. Just a prediction.

3.)   There are currently so many people who actually are facing the death penalty, who actually lack substantial defense or the resources to procure such. There are actual people who deserve empathy by the same system of ethics Hagopian applies. There are people in this position at intersections of race, gender and class that are historically marginalized. These are the people who need our empathy most of all. I expected this from The Whiny Liberal, or even a mention of the capital Spacey possessed that will largely absolve him of his crimes in our current society. I expected some acknowledgment of intersectionality. I didn’t get it. So, I wonder, what exactly are we learning from Kevin Spacey? That powerful men are forgivable? That they aren’t monsters even when they act like them? That they don’t deserve the death penalty?

If you’re making an argument for universal justice, start at the most marginalized community. If you can convince us that the people most disadvantaged by the legal system, those most disbelieved as survivors, those without the platform to tell their stories, you’ve made a successful argument that could imbue some real change. If Kevin Spacey is the person teaching us how to treat perpetrators, I don’t think our society will progress all that much. Cismen celebrities will continue to get away with things they’ve always gotten away with, whether we think they deserve to or not.

If you need evidence of this, Chris Brown released a collaboration with R. Kelly this week. You know, the Chris Brown who confessed to beating Rihanna in his 2017 documentary, which was rated positively by 92 percent of Google users. You know, the R. Kelly that created a sex cult through which he manipulated much younger women, physically emotionally and sexually. The R. Kelly who was found “not guilty” after a sex tape with a minor surfaced, accompanied by 14 counts of child pornography. There was also Charlie Sheen, a famous man who assaulted his wife and spent no time in jail. Justin Bieber repeatedly commits dangerous driving offenses and has yet to suffer serious consequences. So, yeah. Rich powerful people get away with crimes. Maybe use someone seen less favorably by modern society to begin with when attempting to tackle issues of empathy or death penalty. Maybe don’t draw attention to an issue — that you clearly, clearly care about — when it’s only contextually relevant to the public because of a rich, white man, who we know won’t serve serious jail time.

 

I do believe in forgiveness. I believe in reconciliation and reformation. However, I don’t believe in applying this system of ethics only to those at the highest social strata — those who never face the severest consequences of their actions. Jones served her time, she repented. I have not seen Spacey do the same. I don’t feel the need to jump to the defense of this man. I wish Hagopian had used his platform to actually make the conversation victim-centric, rather than simply stressing the importance of doing so. This is an issue of sensitivity and timing. This argument in defense of Spacey, saying we have no right to call him a “monster,” came without time for healing, without evidence of repentance. I was cautious about defending Jones, even after her 20 years in jail, in order to respect the victim. I admire Hagopian’s arguments, but I am repelled by its context. Now was not the time to make victimhood, empathy or the death penalty about Spacey.

Sarah Lieberman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at slieberman@cornellsun.com. Blueberries for Sal appears alternate Thursdays this semester.