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The Opposite of Being Cavalier

April 27, 2015

This could be an essay on how things are often more complicated than they appear.  This could be an essay that parses when you should overlook minor inconsistencies and concentrate on the big picture. This could be an essay on what people who have deeply-held beliefs do when forced to confront an inconvenient truth.

Or this could be an essay on the Daily News overcompensating.

Say you’re watching the movie “Unbroken” and you get to the scene where the Japanese prison camp guard orders 300 inmates to line up and punch another prisoner in the face.  You’ve been entertained by the movie up until that point, but then you say: “Wait a minute. An emaciated POW could never withstand a fraction of the blows administered in that scene. He certainly couldn’t have been knocked down again and again and jump up each time, saying defiantly: “Go ahead, hit me again!”

Now, having this thought occur to you doesn’t suddenly give you a surge of sympathy for the prison camp guards, but you do wonder:  If the screenwriters got that wrong, what else is wrong with this movie?

And on this point, in answering criticism of the movie she directed, Angelina Jolie, acknowledged dramatic embellishment in the scene to capture “the totality of the brutality that wasn’t depicted.”

That’s actually a brilliant defense of inaccuracy – but it still is inaccuracy.

Say you read Victor Klemperer’s powerful, poignant classic “I Shall Bear Witness,” his diary of life in Nazi Germany.  It transports you to that insane period in history.  As a Jew, he suffers countless insults, indignities and hardships with only the rarest example of kindness from his German neighbors.

But something occurs to you as you read – Klemperer lived throughout the war walking the streets of Dresden with a yellow star on his chest.

How did that happen, when so many other Jews had no chance whatsoever? Now thinking this thought doesn’t make you a Holocaust denier, but it does raise an issue. Anti-Jewish policies seem to have been implemented differently in different cities and countries under Nazi rule.

Some people who have studied this period explain the discrepancy as follows: They say that the exceptions and anomalies in the Nazi record aren’t exculpatory, but can be even more insidious. The Nazis kept alive certain Jews and others they regarded as “untermensch” because they were useful. In this regard, there were millions of people who survived the numerous concentration camps and other forced-work settings. They were treated not well, but at least in a way that allow them to function. Some even “enjoyed” certain amenities. For example, Auschwitz-Birkenau was a massive complex that had a library and organized soccer teams. That’s something that nobody talks about – victims engaged in “recreational” activities, but it’s been established.  It’s a fact that exists in the shadow of a larger fact – countless people were gassed nearby.

Most historians don’t even talk about such things because to do so opens the door to idiots denying atrocities.

The point here is that it’s almost never so simple as portrayed.  Contradictory realities can exist side by side with another. Real answers take time and study to sort out. In the meantime, you don’t leap to an unsound conclusion.

Recently, you could have read the account of “mattress girl” Emma Sulkowicz in Time magazine and other media outlets. As you did, you couldn’t help feeling sympathy and support for someone who was raped and then dedicated herself to fighting college sexual assault.  (Sen. Gillibrand brought this young woman to the State of the Union address in January.)

Later, when you find out that Columbia University, the NYPD and the Manhattan DA couldn’t substantiate her claims, and refused to take action against the alleged “rapist,” you are given pause.

When you learn about the suit filed by the “rapist” against the university, you’re given further pause. The suit includes emails from Sulkowicz that make it clear that she was in a sexual relationship with the man, and may have pursued him.

What to make of it all? Again, you don’t, or at least you shouldn’t, suddenly veer off into a crude attack on the woman’s integrity, but now you realize there’s more to the story.

Experts in these situations say that it’s not uncommon for the abused to have emotional ties to their abusers. That’s convenient explanation for her emails — one that a lot of people will doubt, but it’s also a phenomenon that happens to be well established in clinical research.

What does the Daily News do in this situation? After initially giving the “mattress girl” wholly affirmative coverage, the paper has now started telling the other side of the story.

On the one hand, it’s good that the Daily News has the ability to revisit a storyline based on new information. Other papers, such as the Post, frequently ignore developments that aren’t consistent with their established take on a matter.

On the other hand, the paper’s dramatic swing — culminating in a harsh editorial this Sunday against the woman simply wasn’t right.  It wholly bought into the new, opposite narrative, now calling Sulkowicz’s mattress protest a “stunt” and blaming the university and even Sen. Gillibrand for creating a “frenzy” over college sexual assault.

Yes, there’s additional information in this situation that needs to be processed. The narrative may change, and, indeed, is changing.  It’s much more complicated now. But the new information shouldn’t have the paper doing a complete about-face, forgetting the need for sensitivity on the matter, conveniently pretending that it wasn’t part of its so-called frenzy, and undermining legitimate concern about sexual abuse on campuses. No?

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