Sacred Objects

All functioning groups develop sacred objects – things, people, places, or ideas that unite and symbolize the group and ground its aesthetic. Almost anything can be a sacred object – animals (such as the coyote and the crab), books, ornaments, foods, places. These objects are not “sacred” in the sense that they are worshipped, but in the sense that they are special to the group and protected (or treated in some particular way) on behalf of the group, as a kind of metonym.

It is not possible to simply declare that an object is sacred to the group. Instead, look out for things that are already, naturally acquiring meaning to the group, and experiment with ways of elaborating that meaning.

Habit-Reinforcing Chemicals (Exogenous or Endogenous)

The most basic elements of ritual are group sacrifice (of time or other things) and changing mental states. “Mood-altering or consciousness-altering substances or techniques” is such a ubiquitous human pattern that it is included in Donald E. Brown’s list of human universals, features believed to be common to all human groups ever studied. Substances and practices can be incorporated into rituals to create pleasant moods and reinforce the ritual behavior.

Small-group rituals involving tea, coffee, or yerba mate are performed around the world. The psychoactive effects of tea are enthusiastically recorded in the Tang Dynasty poet Lu Tung’s Tea Song of Yuchuan:

The first bowl moistens my lips and throat;

The second bowl breaks my loneliness;

The third bowl searches my barren entrails but to find

Therein some five thousand scrolls;

The fourth bowl raises a slight perspiration

And all life’s inequities pass out through my pores;

The fifth bowl purifies my flesh and bones;

The sixth bowl calls me to the immortals.

The seventh bowl could not be drunk,

only the breath of the cool wind raises in my sleeves.

Where is Penglai Island, Yuchuanzi wishes to ride on this sweet breeze and go back.

(Some translations have the breeze emanating directly from the speaker’s armpits, rather than raising in his sleeves – a vivid sensory image that makes a lot of sense when you’ve actually drunk half a dozen cups of fine tea with full social focus and attention.)

Wine, beer, spirits, and tobacco all have their ritual uses, and are still currently legal in most countries. Any of these substances can be the focus of the ritual itself, or can be a flavor added to a ritual whose primary focus is on other things.

Substances are not the only way to accomplish this pattern. Our bodies produce many habit-reinforcing chemicals in response to stimulation, such as vigorous exercise or touch. The pleasure of partner dancing (such as contra dancing) derives in part from physiological responses to exercise and chaste, comfortable touch. Distance running, particularly non-competitive running for the pure physical pleasure, is highly habit forming.

Ritual and social context, for many groups, provide the moderating influence that keeps habit-forming substances and behaviors from being used excessively or harmfully. And sometimes a rare ritual, such as Purim, provides a ritual outlet for occasional excess. Used prudently, habit-forming or mood-altering substances are powerful tools for creating beauty.

Those Few Patterns

If I consider my life honestly, I see that it is governed by a certain very small number of patterns of events which I take part in over and over again.

Being in bed, having a shower, having breakfast in the kitchen, sitting in my study writing, walking in the garden, cooking and eating our common lunch at my office with my friends, going to the movies, taking my family to eat at a restaurant, having a drink at a friend’s house, driving on the freeway, going to bed again. There are a few more.

There are surprisingly few of these patterns of events in any one person’s way of life, perhaps no more than a dozen. Look at your own life and you will find the same. It is shocking at first, to see that there are so few patterns of events open to me.

Not that I want more of them. But when I see how very few of them there are, I begin to understand what huge effect these few patterns have on my life, on my capacity to live. If these few patterns are good for me, I can life well. If they are bad for me, I can’t.

Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, pp. 67-68.

When I was about nineteen, I spent a few days in the hospital for a complication from a birth defect in one of my kidneys. I was not very close to death at the time – I have been much closer to death before and since. But isolated in a hospital room without a computer and on a large amount of drugs, I had a vision of what death would be like. What it was, was more of the same – and then nothing. No great narrative, no drama, just more of the same patterns, very much as it has always been, and then nothing.

Those few patterns that make up our lives, are our lives. They seem trivial and mundane, but they have the greatest contribution to our well-being (or suffering). Those shockingly few patterns of events that constitute our lives have an importance that is belied by their familiarity. They make up our comfortable home on Earth, or our prison, or both.

Supply Everyone With Every Nutrient

An introductory note to my ongoing “ritual pattern language” project – on ritual practice as cuisine, and the roles of inclusion and exclusion

Every human group has faced different obstructions related to diet. Groups faced geographic restrictions (rainforest, desert, or arctic tundra?), cultural limitations (what agricultural products and food processing methods are available?) and biological limitations (does your group have the right genes to digest lactose?). These restrictions fed off of and influenced each other; as milk-producing animal technology became available, in certain geographic regions, some people developed the ability to take nutrition from the new source. But each human group, as proven by its long-term existence, has found a way to supply all the necessary nutrients to its members. While we have a pretty good idea of the nutrients necessary to prevent most forms of malnutrition – macronutrients, vitamins, minerals – the role of, for instance, microorganisms is just beginning to be widely understood, and obesity is a common form of malnutrition that our culture does not seem to be able to reliably prevent or cure.

Similarly, there are social and behavioral “nutrients” – that are very poorly understood – the lack of which causes suffering akin to malnutrition. Everyone in solitary confinement endures severe suffering from the social equivalent of starvation; but there are likely a host of complex social behaviors and interactions that produce the “social nutrients” necessary for flourishing and well-being, the social and psychological equivalents of bright eyes and shiny fur. As with food nutrients, people likely vary in their needs, and they certainly vary in their ability to extract “nutrition” from different sources. People who are lactose intolerant cannot get calcium from milk, but they still need calcium.

The ritual patterns presented here represent ingredients or techniques for a possible “cuisine of social behavior.” It is very important that not everyone will be able to practically participate in each ritual pattern enough to extract the “nutrient” that it represents. A person with hearing loss will have a harder time participating in singing; a person without much mobility will have a harder time participating in synchronized movement rituals. A person with severe face blindness will not be able to participate in greeting everyone by name, and would likely feel distressed if expected to do so.

That they might exclude someone, somewhere, does not mean that these rituals should never be performed by any groups, on general principles. Every ritual necessarily excludes many people, and that is part of the point of ritual, to draw a boundary around a group. But the whole point of a group is to satisfyingly provide “social nutrients” to all of its actual members. Just as geographic, cultural, and genetic obstructions formed the context in which nutritional traditions had to fit, the brains and bodies of group members define a large part of the given landscape that a group’s ritual practice must fit.

Imagine a cuisine that anyone on earth can eat: lactose-free, gluten-free, free of nuts and all allergens, vegan, kosher, not spicy, etc. Those few foods that would be left (if there are any at all) would not satisfy any particular person’s aesthetic and nutritional needs well. But imagine a group with various dietary restrictions cooking lunch together every day. Some members probably have some dietary restrictions, but probably not all the possible dietary restrictions are represented; many foods can be eaten together. And there is no requirement that each food be eaten by every person. Evolving rituals that fit a particular group is a similar creative process of experiment, communication, and play.

If the obvious forms of the presented patterns are not practical for supplying a particular member (or even several members) with a necessary nutrient, the group may need to supply that member or those members with the nutrient in a different way, or may need to supply all members of the group with that nutrient in a different way. Being excluded from a ritual that one’s group all participates in can be distressing and painful, depending on the circumstances. This is especially difficult, because the “nutrients” supplied by a particular ritual are not always legible to us. But this is the essential task for creating beautiful rituals that fit the members of the group. It is similar to designing beautiful, functional clothing or buildings: always adapted to the specific, local situation of body, group, weather, and land.

Why Ritual?

Ritual is just “going through the motions.” Is that a bad thing?

Think about saying “I love you” to a romantic partner. It might be sincere, or it might not be; how can you prove it?

Now think about “going through the motions” in love – staying up all night to take care of someone when they’re sick even if you don’t feel like it, having dinner together night after night, gazing into each other’s eyes, making a special effort to be kind instead of grumpy over and over, every day. Compared to “going through the motions,” saying “I love you” is just lip service.

Performing the same behaviors over and over demonstrates commitment. It establishes a rhythm that’s predictable and safe, allowing for creative exploration, just like a predictable jazz rhythm allows for a creative melody.

Ritual allows people to coordinate with each other. Dance partners dance best together when they know the steps – and they can improvise from there. Ritual can be energizing, relaxing, and fun. Knowing what you’re supposed to be doing takes the pressure off. And doing things together creates strong, trusting groups. It’s better than just talking. Far from “empty ceremony,” rituals can be deeply meaningful.

All human groups have rituals. Doing rituals together is how we cooperate and get along with each other – especially in a diverse society. When words fail, “going through the motions” can be the key to comfort, trust, and creativity.

Respecting and Erasing

Ending something does not entail denying its value.

Note: edited from original 2008 version, all links updated.


In 1959, the artist Robert Rauschenberg asked the much older and more established artist Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing so that he could erase it. Eventually, de Kooning gave him a drawing, executed in heavy crayon, grease pencil, graphite, and ink. Over the course of a month, Rauschenberg erased the drawing and mounted it in a gold frame. View a large image of it here – it’s a beautiful object, evocative and moving in its silence.

I relate this here in response to J. David Velleman, whose “A Right of Self-Termination?” (Ethics 109 (April 1999): 606-628) presents an ethical argument against a moral right to suicide, at least suicide committed in order to make things better for oneself.

The core of the paper’s argument is that it is wrong for a person to kill himself in his own interest, because by doing so, he devalues that which inheres to him – his dignity, in Kantian terms – that is not his to evaluate, but belongs rather to all of humanity. Velleman thinks that we ought to defer to a person to judge what is in his interests – he just does not think that killing oneself in one’s own interest is morally permissible “solely on the grounds of the benefits [one] will thereby obtain or the harms [one] will avoid.”

Velleman proposes that there is a special kind of value to every person, that logically must exist if his interests are to matter. It is an answer to the question, why should we act in the interests of other people? The answer is, because people matter. This mattering Velleman equates with Kantian dignity, which is further equated with man’s rational nature. (The capacity to rationally choose one’s ends is what gives a person dignity, in Kantian terms.)

Dignity is the reason we respect people (and respect their wishes). Velleman argues that suicide is a form of rejecting this dignity – and that we don’t have the right to do that, because it is not ours to reject, exactly, but a feature of humanity. (Compare this thinking to the moral claim of suicide contagion.) This dignity, says Velleman, is “a value that [a person] possesses by virtue of being one of us, and the value of being one of us is not his alone to assess or defend. The value of being a person is therefore something larger than any particular person who embodies it.” Therefore we don’t have the right to destroy it. It’s not just that suicide is failing to treat oneself with the respect due to persons, though it is certainly that, according to Velleman – it’s that suicide undermines respect for persons in general.

The story of the paper is this. Professor Velleman had cancer (in real life). A few years ago he was sitting around after dinner at a philosophy conference with some colleagues and a few people were smoking. One of the smoking professors said something about how he knew smoking would probably kill him, but that his enjoyment of smoking outweighed the probable early death it would cause him. Velleman, fresh from the chemo table, was deeply offended. Over the years, he came to realize that, by joking about trading life for pleasure, the professor was implying that human life lacks serious value (dignity), dehumanizing not only himself but Professor Velleman as well. The core of the paper, as I see it, is this:

My host’s remarks implied that an early death, of the sort he was risking and I was hoping to forestall, would be a loss to him that could be offset by sufficient gains. But what would it matter how much I lost or gained if I myself would be no loss? My gains or losses would merit concern only on the basis of concern for me – which, being the basis of concern for them, could not then be offset by that concern. Hence my gains or losses wouldn’t matter unless I had value that could not be offset by theirs.

My host was implicitly denying the existence of such a value. For he claimed that death was worth worrying about only in respects for which he could be compensated by the pleasures of smoking. He was thus implicitly denying the interest-independent value of a person, without which it couldn’t really matter whether I lived or died.

In an appendix to the piece, Velleman responds to criticisms from Professor F. M. Kamm, in her article “Physician-Assisted Suicide, the Doctrine of the Double Effect, and the Ground of Value” (Ethics 109 (April 1999): 586-605). Kamm calls one of Velleman’s arguments the Exchange Argument, and interprets it to mean (correctly, says Velleman) that it is forbidden to exchange the intrinsic value of one’s humanity merely to benefit one’s interests, as in suicide or some kind of voluntary slavery. But, Kamm says,

According to Kant, beautiful things (e.g., art) have a value beyond price, though not the dignity that persons have. Most would say (though perhaps Kant would not, given his theory of beauty) that beautiful things have intrinsic value, even if no one cares about them and they satisfy no human interests. Yet we may permissibly exchange beautiful things for money or food. The permissibility of exchanging them for things that have interest-relative value and a market price does not imply, I believe, that they only have interest-relative value. It implies that what has intrinsic aesthetic value has only finite value and could be permissibly exchanged for what has only interest-relative value (e.g., food). But this does not show that beautiful things have only interest-relative value rather than intrinsic aesthetic value. That we can exchange one thing for another does not mean that they share the same essential nature or type of value. The same might be true of persons.

Velleman responds that the painting analogy fails, because when we sell a painting, we are not destroying it, but entrusting it into the care of another art appreciator. A better analogy, says Velleman, would be burning a painting in the fireplace because one has run out of kindling. “But then,” says Velleman, “burning an artwork for kindling would ordinarily be objectionable. Not coincidentally, it’s also what would be analogous to self-interested suicide.”

But I think that analogy fails as well. I am so glad I heard about that empty, erased de Kooning drawing, because there is the proper analogy for a suicide, and, I think, a serious objection to Velleman here. The act of erasing or destroying does not imply a lack of respect. There is such a thing as respectful erasing. Rauschenberg could believe heartily in the value of de Kooning’s drawing – in fact, the drawing’s artistic value is key to the work’s success – and still, with the consent of de Kooning, erase it. Similarly, I think it is possible to commit suicide without implying that human life, and even one’s own life, lacks value or dignity.

In many cases, as with the de Kooning, the absence of the thing is what heightens its value. When I saw the erased de Kooning, I immediately thought of Miller Williams’ poem “The Curator,” in which a young assistant curator at the Hermitage in Leningrad comes up with a scheme to ship all the paintings out of the city to avoid their destruction by the German bombs. They ship the paintings out, but leave the frames up to make it easier to put things back in their place when the war is over. Williams says:

Nothing will seem surprised or sad again
compared to those imperious, vacant frames.

Russian soldiers come to the Hermitage from all over Russia, and are disappointed that the paintings are gone, so the staff gives tours despite their absence. And gradually the tour of this “Unseen Collection” becomes more popular:

We pointed to more details about the paintings,
I venture to say, than if we had had them there,
some unexpected use of line or light,
balance or movement, facing the cluster of faces
the same way we’d done it every morning
before the war, but then we didn’t pay
so much attention to what we talked about.
People could see for themselves.

Eventually, blind people begin to come for the tour. Eventually, of course, the war is over and the paintings are replaced, but the blind people never come back, and people don’t pay quite as much attention as before.

Can one erase a person in such a manner? Certainly, many who have been erased by death are still valued. Although rational choosing must cease at death, I do not believe that the thing that causes people to matter ceases at death. It is strange that one’s biological life – and, especially, one’s rational capacity – should be the basis for one’s intrinsic claim to matter.

It might even occasionally be true that killing someone else could be done out of respect for his dignity, as in Sharon Olds’ poem “Things That Are Worse Than Death,” in which the speaker imagines killing her son in order to save him from being tortured by the police. An excerpt:

You are speaking of Chile,
of the woman who was arrested
with her husband and their five-year-old son.
You tell how the guards tortured the woman, the man, the child,
in front of each other,
“as they like to do.”
Things that are worse than death.
I can see myself taking my son’s ash-blond hair in my fingers,
tilting back his head before he knows what is happening,
slitting his throat, slitting my own throat
to save us that.

And in the recent novel by Cormac McCarthy, The Road, a father in a post-apocalyptic horror of a world is constantly aware that he might have to kill his son to spare him from being raped, tortured, and eaten by cannibals. Late in the novel, the father and son find a baby lying abandoned over a smoldering cooking fire. It is certainly reasonable to conclude that the father’s actions, in keeping his son alive in such a world, are wrong – that he has failed to respect his son’s dignity and value by keeping him alive even more than the baby’s parents have failed to respect his dignity by burning him as if to eat him. (Some theories of familicide, the killing of spouse and children, including data regarding the virtual male monopoly of familicide compared with more equal gender ratios in killings of children alone, seem to suggest that real killings of children are generally motivated by proprietary feelings, rather than committed out of pure concern for the children’s dignity. But the possibility remains.)

And many of us feel that such a world – such an unending stream of horrors – is already upon us, and perhaps has been since humanity’s inception. For many people, the only way to genuinely respect themselves is to erase themselves.

One Less Outgroup

In honor of Serene Social Sloth Sunday, a made-up internet holiday in which we avoid posting “outrage porn” (partisan articles designed to engender feelings of contempt or rage toward the outgroup), I propose to explore the scapegoating of a widely-hated outgroup and frequent target of outrage porn, the college fraternity. I further propose a narrative mechanism by which false reports of rape achieve more publicity than true reports of rape.

Since the late 1970s, college fraternities have been portrayed as a dangerous, vile outgroup in popular culture as well as academic culture. As a category, they are one of the few remaining outgroups in American popular culture. Other candidates, depending on one’s social situation, might include police, the technology industry, GamerGate, anti-GamerGate, feminists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, Tumblr Social Justice, and trans-exclusive radical feminists – but all these find more defenders than fraternities. Regardless of the actual properties of their members, they are, in common knowledge, agreed to be wealthy, and especially to be the beneficiaries of inherited wealth; to be athletically and sexually successful and physically attractive; and above all, to be very masculine white men. This is the kulak axis of their despicable nature as characters in folklore. In addition, they are also organized secret societies who conduct secret rituals that bind their members together. This is the conspiracy axis of their despicable nature, similar to that attributed at various times to the Jews, the Masons, the Mormons, and presently to the Church of Scientology.

One particular subversion myth that has attached itself to fraternities, in gossip, news, and other folkloric channels, is that of the rape. (See also Bil Ellis’ treatment of the subversion myth, quoted in my previous piece. Here of course I am not using “myth” to mean “untrue,” but rather using it in the folkloric sense of stories “told for true” that are transmitted from person to person without excessive scrutiny, which scrutiny is especially withheld when the myth in question is one that unites an ingroup together.)

To take the folkloric perspective is to be interested in the content and spreading mechanisms of stories, to appreciate and make sense of the stories that organize social reality and shape our worldview and the worldview of others. It is not the skeptic’s perspective: the folklorist mindset should not motivate us to respond to all stories with skepticism (and “wrong on the internet”), but with interest. Only when stories have grave, real-world consequences should we be particularly concerned with their veracity.

Consider this quotation in the Washington Times, from an anonymous source, claiming to have participated in mob vandalism against the fraternity whose members were briefly accused of gang-raping a young woman (which young woman’s allegations turned out to have been made up):

“I texted one of my friends and I was like, ‘Let’s throw bottles at the Phi Psi house tonight,’ and she said, ‘Yes!’ I think that the article made it clear that victims at the university have no legitimate channels to take action, and I think vandalism is a completely legitimate form of action when like, legitimate authority is corrupt. I think it was justified,” he said in an interview with The Times.

This male student was not imagining the fraternity members as fellow human beings, with as vivid an inner life as himself, with similar failings and longings and joys. He was imagining the fraternity as a metonym for evil, protected in enacting its horrors by the “corrupt” administration (an extra dimension to the “conspiracy” axis). His actions were based on hearing a story, a very powerful story, one that drew on the beliefs obtained through college folklore about fraternities, already existing in students’ minds. Note that the power of this anecdote relies on its being a good story; it’s only an anonymous quotation. If you could feel it changing or confirming your perceptions, then you understand the power of folkloric understanding.

The Power of Stories

Consider also an article by Jessica Valenti, Frat brothers rape 300% more. One in 5 women is sexually assaulted on campus. Should we ban frats?, arguing that fraternities should be banned. Here, the myth of fraternity rape is used to argue for the end of this particular kind of institution – to attempt to threaten its existence, to eradicate it. Much of the evidence Valenti presents is folkloric in nature; she presents, for instance, a “rape bait” email allegedly circulated among fraternity members (and since circulated as outrage porn). Presenting vile writings and attributing them to a hated outgroup is reminiscent of similar folkloric practices used against certain historical and contemporary groups, such as Masons and Scientologists.

Note that there is danger here in “outgrouping” Jessica Valenti, alone or as a representative of the mysterious and powerful tribe known as feminists. It is wise to be aware of “feminism” as a possible folkloric outgroup in our own minds, whose mythical existence might color our narrative perceptions.

Valenti begins with a vignette composed of information taken exclusively from folkloric sources:

When I was at Tulane University, girls were warned about the “bad” fraternities: the ones that spiked the punch at parties with Everclear and maybe drugs, the kind of frats where girls got hurt. During my first week of class 18 years ago, rumours circulated about a girl on my floor who had been sexually assaulted by multiple men at a frat party. These issues were always discussed with a certain nonchalance – as if having at least one rapist around was an inevitable part of fraternity life.

Almost everyone who has attended college has heard warning stories about fraternities, about date rape drugs and gang rape, secret hazing rituals and sexual exploitation. These are told “for true,” though, as Valenti notes, often with a nonchalance that belies their serious content. Perhaps these stories function as valuable gossip, helping new friends and acquaintances feel intimate with each other; that they are not “about” their gruesome informational content (as with many college horror legends) explains the lack of gravity with which they are treated.

Valenti, however, presents the stories “for true” – these stories are included in a short list of evidence for why fraternities should not be allowed to exist. They set the tone – fraternities are bogeymen – and the framework within which evidence will be considered. Within this mindset, when presented with the statistic that fraternity members are three times more likely to commit rape, we already know it must be true; it needs no investigation, because it confirms the emotional content that was already present in our minds.

This statistic, stated in the article’s headline, is a lie. Here I am not interested in merely demonstrating that it is untrue, wrong-on-the-internet style, but in showing how very wrong it is, and how blatant the misrepresentation, in order to illustrate the power of the fraternity rape myth to shape expectations and beliefs.

Valenti’s title claims “Frat Brothers 300% More Likely to Rape;” later in the article, her exact claim is “numerous studies have found that men who join fraternities are three times more likely to rape. [Emphasis mine].” She credits the researcher John Foubert with the statement. His exact words characterizing his study:

Guys who joined a fraternity then committed three times as many sexual assaults as those who didn’t join. It is reasonable to conclude that fraternities turn men into guys more likely to rape. [Emphasis mine.]

Note that Foubert uses the term “sexual assault” to describe his study, and generalizes this to “rape” when he turns to “reasonable” implications. Valenti condenses Foubert’s condensation, keeping only the “rape” language. Are fraternity members 300% more likely to commit sexual assault, or rape?

Actually, neither, which is why I think it is appropriate to characterize the statement as a lie. Foubert’s actual study measures “sexual aggression” according to the Sexual Experiences Survey, short form perpetrator version, an instrument created by Mary P. Koss and described by her as follows:

All versions of the revised SES measure behavior that meets legal definitions of various sex crimes, with the exception of acts accomplished by verbal coercion not involving threats of physical harm. The acts accomplished by coercion are certainly on the sexual assault spectrum and they are of interest in many fields and settings, but it is important to clearly understand that they are not crimes. Feminist legal scholars argue that these acts should be forms of attempted rape and rape and recommend changing statutory definitions of rape as a goal for advocate policy reform. [Emphasis mine.]

What are these non-crimes that are “on the sexual assault spectrum,” called sexual assaults by Foubert and called rape by Valenti? The short-form SES asks explicit questions about particular sexual acts, conducted under certain contexts. For each type of sex act, the instrument asks several questions. A representative question:

2. I had oral sex with someone or had someone perform oral sex on me without their consent by:

a. Telling lies, threatening to end the relationship, threatening to spread rumors about them, making promises about the future I knew were untrue, or continually verbally pressuring them after they said they didn’t want to.

b. Showing displeasure, criticizing their sexuality or attractiveness, getting angry but not using physical force after they said they didn’t want to.

c. Taking advantage when they were too drunk or out of it to stop what was happening.

d. Threatening to physically harm them or someone close to them.

e. Using force, for example holding them down with my body weight, pinning their arms, or having a weapon.

Only items c, d, and e correspond to what the law recognizes as sexual assault or rape. Within the study, Foubert characterizes answers to questions a and b to be “sexual aggression,” rather than rape. But when he is testing whether fraternity membership predicts rape, he lumps these behaviors – including having sexual contact by “making promises about the future I knew were untrue,” which used to be called “seduction” – as one category. His does not present any correlation between fraternity membership and rape; rather, the correlation falls out of treating the entire category of “sexual aggression” and rape as one. And it only works for the first three-month period of the study. And his sample size was 220.

But these are small quibbles in comparison to the chain of exaggeration that followed the study. Foubert characterized his work as demonstrating that fraternity members “commit three times as many sexual assaults” as non-fraternity members, but his study does not reflect sexual assaults — rather, vague “sexual aggression” that, while perhaps not laudable behavior, makes up a substantial part of human sexual interactions. (Twenty-five percent of Foubert’s sample during the first three-month follow-up period committed acts of “sexual aggression” as defined by the SES.) Valenti then doubled down on Foubert’s dishonest characterization and called it “rape.”

The result Foubert actually obtained is entirely explicable by the fact that those men selected for fraternities had more sex, and therefore performed more of the normal, though perhaps unfortunate, behaviors associated with sex – emotional conflict, ambivalence, and deceit. But taking the perspective of the purveyors of the myth, these behaviors really do seem like a kind of rape: since men operate from a position of power and privilege, what is “normal” is actually a status quo of systematic oppression. If a man is in a position of power over a woman because of his sex, their negotiations and conflicts can never be judged in the same way as those between equals. So it is reasonable and honest, in their view, to call the result of these conflicts “rape.” The reason that the rest of the world (not to mention the law) does not call it rape is, in their view, the result of a mistaken concept of the notion of rape itself.

I am not accusing Valenti of having read Foubert’s paper; it is more likely that she simply passed Foubert’s lie along as she found it, shortening it in a way that seemed reasonable. These dishonesties are probably not perceived by their perpetrators as wrong. Again, from the inside, the myth of fraternity rape is a terrifying reality, and no exaggeration even approaches the severity of the problem. They may even believe they are being conservative, understating the extent of the problem (only three times as likely?).

Jonathan Haidt’s mantra in The Righteous Mind is: sacredness binds and blinds. It binds people together, allowing us to signal allegiance to group norms and loyalty to our perceived group, and to express care for others. However, it also blinds us to the views of the outgroup, to information or perspectives that violate this sacredness.

Reality Distortion Field

Compare Valenti’s vignette with this description of a fraternity whose members were accused of a gang rape in 1988, shortly after the Tawana Brawley rape hoax:

The “Pikes” are the elite of Florida State’s Greek organizations, confident young men who sport Ray-Ban sunglasses and tans, notorious for their BMWs, biceps and buxom blond girlfriends.

Painting a picture of fraternities as a dangerous outgroup is a normal and expected part of writing this kind of crime story. Just like legends transmitted by gossip, these news stories first bring to mind the stereotype of the malevolent, conspiratorial group of high-status kulaks, then contribute to the legend in each case by adding a new story to fit the stereotype.

The journalism scholar Jack Lule described an influential framework within which to view news of current events: as a set of archetypal stories that humans are naturally interested in. These stories, or “master myths,” are apparent in oral culture, and do not disappear when oral cultures move to print. A brief summary of Lule’s framework follows:

Lule’s analysis of news produced seven of what he calls “master myths”: the victim, whose life is abruptly altered by “the randomness of human existence”; the scapegoat, deployed in stories to remind us of “what happens to those who challenge or ignore social beliefs”; the hero, there to remind us that we have the potential for greatness; the good mother, who offers us “a model of goodness in times when goodness may seem in short supply” (p. 24); the trickster, a crafty figure who usually ends up bringing “on himself and others all manner of suffering,” thanks to his crude, boorish behavior; the other world, which enables us to feel good about our way of life by contrasting it, sometimes starkly, with ways of life elsewhere (as when reporters wrote of life in the former Soviet Union during the Cold War); and the flood, in which we see the “destruction of a group of people by powerful forces,” often because they have “strayed from the right path” (p. 25). [Emphasis in original.]

In Lule’s terms, the fraternity is portrayed as a scapegoat – composed of high-status people, challenging and ignoring important social beliefs about gender, conspiring together behind a veil of secret ritual and privilege to harm vulnerable young women. The fraternity rape myth also contains a victim, who is sometimes transformed into a trickster if the allegations turn out to be false.

Journalism is folkloric in that it is made up of stories; this is not to say, as Lule emphasizes, that these stories are false, just that they are interpreted through the only lens of understanding to which we have access, that of the story. This lens can warp reality even as it offers our only contact with social reality.

The values of newsworthiness, existing in many different forms, may be seen as another shorthand framework for thinking about what stories are likely to be presented in mass media, and what shapes they take when they are there. For example, stories with elements of the bizarre are preferred, as well as those that depict high-status people. Stories have their own momentum; more reporting in the wider media means the story becomes more desirable to report about, through competition with other media outlets to cover stories proven to be desirable; in addition, greater public familiarity with the topic makes stories on the same topic more understandable by the public.

That journalistic selection practices are concerned with optimizing criteria other than truth is not to say that journalists often knowingly publish false stories. But in cases in which veracity is inherently difficult to determine (or perhaps in which the conflict over veracity is itself the story), other criteria will be operative. We are probably much more likely to hear bizarre, shocking stories about high-status people that turn out to be untrue, than to hear ordinary, mundane stories about regular people that turn out to be untrue. This is not a filter limited to mass media: both news stories and ordinary gossip now largely travel along the pathways of social media, and those stories that go “viral” are those that maximize transmission by folkloric, person-to-person means. Facts are massaged into stories, and good stories spread.

But what if, within a pool of candidate stories of unverifiable veracity, those least likely to be true are the ones that spread?

Are Correlates of False Accusations Also Correlates of Newsworthiness?

I am not interested here in debating the prevalence of false accusations of rape. I tend to agree with Megan McArdle that these are inherently dark statistics, not truly knowable from scientific inquiry. I also agree with Scott Alexander that these false reports are not extremely rare. Here, I will discuss studies of false rape allegations not to establish prevalence, but to present certain distinctive features that may be more common to false accusations (as admitted by the accuser) than to real cases of rape.

Again, taking the feminist perspective, any attempt to distinguish false reports from real rapes is regarded with suspicion — indeed, the notion of “real rape” itself, and the existence of the false report as a serious risk, are greeted with outraged protectiveness. The victim is sacred in this narrative, up against forces of privilege and power; she is all too likely to be doubted and “revictimized” by the legal system. The idea that false reports are common enough to meaningfully study, much less that there are correlates from accusers’ stories that are more common to false reports, is a violation of the sacredness of the victim, who must be protected at all costs, including from scrutiny of her account. Matt Atkinson provides an example of research viewed from this perspective, referring to the belief that false allegations either exist or are common as “the ‘women are lying’ belief.”

Why do false accusers do it? A study of all rapes reported in an unnamed midwestern town, as well as reported to two large midwestern universities, reveals that among false accusers, the most common motivation was to provide an alibi for the accuser – an alibi for a pregnancy, for contracting an sexually transmitted disease, for sex that would be damaging to one’s reputation, or for an unexplained absence (as in the Tawana Brawley case). Second, false accusations were motivated by revenge against the accused, often for a romantic slight. Third, some false accusers were motivated by seeking attention, as appears to be the case in the recent UVA/Rolling Stone fraternity rape hoax. Understanding these motivations makes sense of some of the features of false reports, as they differ from reports of actual rape.

I am aware of at least three purported lists of “red flags” – features that are more common in false reports than in non-recanted rape accusations, or even that seem to exclusively occur in false allegation scenarios. Lists like these may be useful, but to keep them in perspective we must remember that they are themselves an important folkloric channel. Lists condense and organize information in an easily consumable way, hence their high representation in clickbait; they give them impression of reliability through truthiness, like nonprobative photographs. Most of all, lists seem to provide action notes, a bridge between reading and doing. Importantly, two of the lists I am aware of come from a police handbook on handling rape cases (Rape Investigation Handbook, Chapter 11, False Reports, by Brent E. Turvey). (Imagine, from the feminist perspective, that police are using checklists to bias themselves against believing a victim’s report of rape.) Whether such lists, as cautiously presented as they are, are appropriate to be used in police procedure or training, is not my question. Rather, I am interested in the behavior of the press: should these characteristics inform a standard of care for the press, to avoid reporting stories that turn out to be false? And wouldn’t it be unfortunate if the exact characteristics that are associated with false reports are exactly those that make a particular rape newsworthy?

The first list of alleged “red flags” was presented at the Tawana Brawley grand jury by Dr. Park Elliot Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist; he based this list on “his own research” and consultation with retired FBI agent Roy Hazelwood. From the Rape Investigation Handbook, linked above, these are features that allegedly characterize false reports:

  1. The story tends to be bizarre or sensational.
  2. The pseudo-victim injures herself, sometimes seriously, or simulates injury for the purpose of gaining support.
  3. The pseudo-victim presents herself in such a way that people believe no one would do this to herself.
  4. The pseudo-victim does not initially report the incident to police.
  5. A stranger is accused.
  6. The pseudo-victim claims that overwhelming force was used or that she resisted greatly or that there were multiple assailants.
  7. The account is either overly detailed or very vague.
  8. The pseudo-victim reports having her eyes closed during the attack or that she was unconscious, or passed out, or has no memory of what happened or was drugged, and so cannot provide details.
  9. The pseudo-victim is indifferent to her injuries.
  10. The expected laboratory findings are absent.
  11. The pseudo-victim is vague about the location of the assault or there is no evidence at the scene to corroborate the complaint.
  12. Damage to the clothing is inconsistent with the injuries.
  13. There are escalating personal problems in the life of the pseudo-victim.
  14. The pseudo-victim has been exposed in the past to accounts of similar things.
  15. The pseudo-victim’s post-assault behavior is inconsistent with the allegations.
  16. The pseudo-victim is uncooperative with the investigation.
  17. When the pseudo-victim talks to the authorities, she tends to steer the conversation away from the specific to the unprovable.
  18. There is writing on the body of the pseudo-victim.
  19. There is a history of making other false allegations.
  20. There is a history of extensive medical care.

Another list, reported in the same book, is called the Baeza False Report Index (BAFRI), compiled by Detective John J. Baeza (again not based on published research, but based on the experience of the detective):

  1. A female victim has demanded to speak with a female officer or investiga-tor (this excludes those cases in which a male officer or investigator has acted inappropriately toward the female).
  2. A female victim’s husband, boyfriend, or other intimate partner has forced her to report the alleged crime, rather than having reported the crime of her own volition.
  3. A victim’s parents have forced the victim to report the alleged crime, rather than having reported the crime of his or her own volition.
  4. A victim, most often under age (less than 18 years old), has returned home after curfew.
  5. A victim states that he or she was abducted at a busy intersection (or some other very public location) during the day, and there are no witnesses to the incident.
  6. A victim states that he or she was attacked by a masked offender in the middle of the day on a busy street (paradoxical offender behavior).
  7. A victim is in a drug rehabilitation program and is out past curfew.
  8. A pregnant female victim is forced by a parent or guardian to report the crime to police.
  9. A victim cannot describe the suspect or provide details of the crime.
  10. A victim has previously been charged with falsely reporting an incident.
  11. A victim has previously reported a similar crime to the police.
  12. A victim focuses on relocating to a new home or apartment during the investigation.
  13. A victim focuses on initiating a lawsuit or on monetary gain during the investigation.
  14. A victim displays “TV” behavior when initiating a complaint, mimicking the way that stereotypical victims act on television and in film (hysterical, demand female officer, catatonic, etc.).
  15. A victim cries at crucial points in the interview to avoid answering key questions.
  16. A victim has a long psychiatric history.

Finally, the third such list comes from a study that is lost to the internet, a 1985 study on rapes in the United States Air Force by Charles P. McDowell, available only as summarized and interpreted in the work of others, as noted by Atkinson, above. Note that Atkinson’s characterization of McDowell’s methodology varies substantially from that reported by Bruce Gross in the Annals of Psychotherapy in 2008.

The list, as excerpted from McDowel’s work by Gross, is as follows:

  1. Physical injuries of false accusers usually are limited to superficial cuts, scratches, and abrasions. Scratches often appear in a hatching or crosshatching pattern, due to repeated attempts to make the scratches visible. Scratches that resemble letters or words sometimes are found on false accusers, typically on their abdomens, but are not found on actual victims.
  2. False accusers frequently claim that they offered vigorous and continuing physical resistance but suffered no serious reprisals. Most actual rape victims do not offer vigorous resistance, and those who do often suffer extremely brutal reprisals.
  3. A false accusation typically solves some perceived problem for the “victim.” It may explain a pregnancy or venereal disease, or it may exact revenge. In contrast, actual rapes seldom appear to solve a problem. They usually create serious problems.
  4. False accusers usually do not make their allegations initially to authorities. Typically they make them to friends or relatives who in turn inform the authorities.
  5. False victims, more often than actual ones, claim to have been raped by strangers.
  6. False accusers, much more often that actual ones, claim to have been attacked by multiple assailants who fit an unsavory stereotype.
  7. False accusers typically claim to have been victims of simple penile insertions, or blitz rapes, without collateral sexual activity.
  8. False accusers tend to be vague on the details, but when a false victim does provide details she tends to do so with a relish that actual victims seldom have.
  9. False accusers, far more frequently than actual victims, cannot say exactly where the rape occurred.
  10. In false accusation cases, far more frequently than in actual cases, the purported crime scene and the physical evidence are found to be inconsistent with the allegation.
  11. False accusers, more often than actual victims, claim to have received phone calls from their “rapists” before or after the crime.
  12. False accusers, more often than actual victims, have personal problems, including difficulty in interpersonal relationships and a history of lying and exaggeration.

One thing that is interesting about these lists is that many of the criteria they propose to be overrepresented in false reports of rape are exactly the criteria by which they are judged newsworthy. Dietz proposes that false reports are more likely to contain elements of the bizarre, itself a news value. Specifically, the existence of some kind of writing on the alleged victim’s body, especially in a place she can reach, is proposed as a criterion unique to false accusations by Dietz and McDowell. Certainly, the charcoal writing on Tawana Brawley’s body served the bizarre, newsworthiness of the story; here, the false accuser and the media are drawing from the same narratives, finding the same things scary, bizarre, and newsworthy.

In a highly folkloric study promoting the myth of evil fraternities, a fraternity gang rape involving just this aspect is taken as the “model” for the authors’ feminist analysis. This is the same fraternity rape story linked above, appearing in the national media (e.g., “Rape Case a Story of Shattered Lives May 14, 1990, Gang Rape Accusations Scar Fraternities, May 13, 1988) shortly after the Tawana Brawley rape hoax. “When the victim was found,” the authors say, “she was comatose and had suffered multiple scratches and abrasions. Crude words and a fraternity symbol had been written on her thighs.” Whether or not this accusation was false, the “crude symbols written on her thighs” detail is present, and the story did capture national media attention, as well as Martin et al.’s academic attention.

Cases that involved “multiple assailants that fit an unsavory stereotype” (e.g., fraternity members) make McDowell’s list, and multiple assailants also make Dietz’ list. An organized, ritualistic gang rape that involves multiple attackers belonging to a hated outgroup is the most news-friendly rape imaginable; this is present in both the Tawana Brawley case and the UVA/Rolling Stone rape hoax.

Kanin (linked above) notes that most of the false accusers recant in the early stages of the investigation. McDowell proposes that false accusers are more likely to report the rape only to family or friends, and Baeza proposes that those pressured by family or intimate partners to press charges are more likely to be false accusers. (In addition, Kanin relates one false accusation case in which a woman, seeking attention from her therapist, reported a false rape to him; he then insisted she go to the police.)

Since currency is a news value, the mass media often selects its cases from those still in the early stages of police involvement, in which a higher percentage of purported cases are false reports. The UVA/Rolling Stone rape hoax reported on a rape story that had not been reported to the police, but had only been related to friends.

There are several harms in the wide exposure of questionable rape claims. First, those who are falsely accused receive more attention and scorn, and in some cases, as in the Tawana Brawley case, police and prosecutors feel more pressure to punish the falsely accused regardless of guilt. Second, false accusers are exposed to the national spotlight, which attention can hardly be imagined to be good for them. Third, when and if these poorly-selected false stories are revealed as false, the public perception of the likelihood of false accusations is increased beyond even realistic levels. If reporters and academics are preferentially selecting stories that are likely to be proved false, the false reporting rate as perceived by the public can be expected to be even higher than the real false reporting rate.

Conclusion

In closing, I would like to mention Caitlin Flanagan’s 2014 investigative piece on fraternities, The Dark Power of Fraternities. When I first read the piece when it came out, I noticed that merely detailing the practices that a long-surviving institution has used to survive has a way of making the institution look dark and conspiratorial. While at the time, Flanagan’s piece seemed to be an example of the myth of evil fraternities, compared to what I have spent the last day reading, it is positively even-handed. Flanagan does report on a rape that occurred inside a fraternity, but it was not sensational, and was not even committed by fraternity members. (I did not see any “red flags” present in the story, for instance.) While much of the piece is devoted to detailing the scheming machinations of fraternities to avoid liability for accidents (including accidental deaths), Flanagan sometimes depicts fraternities positively, and even proposes that fraternities and sororities are essential in financially supporting colleges. Without fraternities, the very existence of many institutions of higher education would be threatened. Since “school” as a metonym for the education system is one of my most reviled personal outgroups, Flanagan unintentionally provides this would-be fraternity rehabilitator with an interesting argument that fraternities should not exist.

Of course, I do not take this argument very seriously; the mere fact that fraternities have survived for so long as institutions makes them valuable for study, and the fact that they provide bonding and companionship gives them value to their members. To justify destroying such institutions, hard data would be required. Unfortunately, most research into fraternity rape does not measure rape, but rather constructs like the “rape-supportive attitude”. Martin et al. suggest that “fraternities create a sociocultural context in which the use of coercion in sexual relations with women is normative and in which the mechanisms to keep this pattern of behavior in check are minimal at best and absent at worst” – but, as with Valenti, their non-folkloric evidence that fraternities are especially prone to rape is missing.

Finally, here are some sloths:
Gift of the Dr. Francis D. Murnaghan Fund, 1973