Sunday, December 18, 2011

Naming Names

Some people remember faces.  Some names.  I'm a face guy.
Introduce me to someone today and unless there's some compelling need for me to make notes of the name, I'll remember all sorts of things about her tomorrow, but probably not her name. Or his.
And so what?  Aside from a little social awkwardness, it mostly doesn't matter.
Words make a difference, of course, they matter.  (What else would I say?  I'm an old English professor fergodssake.)  But my subject here isn't generic words.  It's far more specific.  It's names.
Juliet called the question.
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Well, yeah.  But if you want other folks to know you're talking about roses it's probably better not to call them snap dragons.  Because names matter too.
Partly it's that names signal more than just identification, identity.  Who we are is tied up with what we're called.  (There are reasons many married women in this society choose not to adopt their husband's surname, just as there are reasons people elect to change their names.) And what we're called can be, well, names matter.
There are lawyers who fight tooth and nail to prevent their client from ever being called "defendant" because it suggests that they have some obligation to defend.  They don't, of course.  The entire burden is on the government to prove.
Occasionally a judge will actually grant a motion to prevent prosecutors from calling someone a "victim."  After all, there isn't a victim if there wasn't a crime.  And until the jury says there was a crime, there wasn't.  But if that person is called a "victim," then guilt is presupposed.
And of course, there's the whole thing about dignifying people with their names.  "Mr. Jones" is a mark of respect.  "Boy" is an insult.  "Nigger," at least from someone white, is worse.
There was a judge who could never remember anyone's name.  "Madam Prosecutor," he would call the prosecutor.  Mr. Defense Lawyer, he would call defense counsel.  "Mr. Defendant," he would call the defendant.  Everyone felt insulted until they understood it was his odd way of being polite.
All that is by way of introduction to a side issue in the Jerry Sandusky train wreck.  A side issue, but one that's generating a fair amount of attention.  Enough so that Arthur Brisbane, the "Public Editor" of the New York Times, decided to devote his column in today's paper to it.
THE NEW YORK TIMES generally does not publish the names of sex crime victims. But a Nov. 22 article about one boy in the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State contained biographical details that effectively identified him for anyone who knows how to search the Web, according to critics and the boy’s lawyer.
Michael Boni, the lawyer for Victim 1, as the boy is known in the grand jury report, said The Times should have exercised greater restraint, adding, “These guys knew it would out the kid.”
Maybe. See, the major media (all of them) have that same general policy, subject to exceptions.  Why? Brisbane again.
[I]t is the fear of exposure that often discourages victims of sex crimes from reporting them in the first place. Dean Kilpatrick, an authority on sex crime victimization, told me that public exposure of victims in high-profile cases reinforces this fear.
“Most victims, based on the research, are very reluctant to report,” said Mr. Kilpatrick, a clinical psychologist at the Medical University of South Carolina and director of its National Crime Victims Center. When they are asked why they don’t report the crimes, he said, “some of the top concerns are: ‘I am afraid,’ ‘I don’t want other people to find out,’ ‘I am afraid that people will blame me for what happened.’ ” 
OK, a decent motive.  We want people who are victims of criminal assault, sexual or otherwise, to report it.  When we do things that embarrass them unnecessarily if they report, they're less likely to report.  That's logical, and it's a seemingly fair social policy determination on the part of the media.
Except it's only seemingly fair.  In fact, when you think about it for a bit, it's dangerous and, although it's easy to toss the term around in this era of Scope and Grope and indefinite detention based on government hunches and Steven Seagal joining Sheriff Joe in a tank attack on a cock-fighting tournament, unAmerican.
See, here's the thing. 
The people we're protecting, the people we're allowing to have their identities hidden so as to avoid the embarrassment of naming, those people aren't actually "victims of sex crimes."  They're people who claim to be victims of sex crimes.  They are accusers.  Maybe they're telling the truth, maybe not.
There's this other person, of course, who's deeply embarrassed, who's humiliated.  Who's shamed.  Who's reputation is trashed.  Who's understood to be guilty.  Before trial.
He's the one hiding his head during the perp walk.  Because, you know, he's a perp.  And we know that because he was accused by someone who's ashamed to say,
I accuse him.
Instead, there's this passive voice of condemnation.
He did something horrific to someone.
Or maybe not.
Legally not. Not unless the jury says so.  Unanimously.
But we (that's neither the royal we nor the plural for you and I, it's the collective we for the body public) don't give a shit about that.
So says Publius.
Hiding for shame.
Brisbane concludes his column this way.
In the case of Victim 1, the details concerning the auto accident and the boy’s athletics added human interest to the story, giving readers a deeper understanding of the boy. Was that reason enough to include them and put his privacy at risk? I don’t believe so. The traditional mandate to preserve privacy is there to protect sex crime victims — a broader social purpose that, in my mind, outweighs the transient benefits of a single human-interest story.
Got that.
The traditional mandate to preserve privacy is there to protect sex crime victims.
And the Times didn't protect, sufficiently, Sex Crime Victim Number 1.  Who might or might not actually be a sex crime victim.
I'm not interested in figuring out they identity of that person who claims to have been victimized.  What I'm damn sure of is that whoever that person is, Jerry Sandusky has far more reason to have had his identity concealed.
  • To avoid the real shame of being an accused child rapist.
  • To avoid the harassment that follows absolutely.
  • To preserve, insofar as possible, the presumption of innocence.
Because it's what's supposed to be the American way.
Which of course we never really much honor except in the breach.


  1. Somewhat related, I did a rape shield this year. It was very clear that our guy didn't do it. When we filed the motion we had to do it under seal and the hearing was in camera. It struck me as so absurd and unfair that our guy had lies about him plastered in the paper and on discovery, but the actual admitted facts by the "victim" which tended to prove innocence were visible only to the court. I don't know when privacy became more important than an open judicial system but it's a problem.

  2. Absolutely. Same thing. Essentially laudable in intent, in practice rape shield laws presume that accusers tell the truth and eviscerate defendants. While the courts acknowledge some wiggle room around the right to present a defense, the reality is that rape shield mostly prevents fair impeachment and honest defense.

    But then, who cares about that when there's an accuser to be protected?