Sexual violence is sickeningly commonplace. In the United States, federal data suggests a new sexual assault occurs every two minutes.
Despite the frequency of such crimes, they rarely prompt the intensity of outrage that’s emerged since last week’s sentencing of a former Stanford student who was convicted on three felony counts of sexual assault.
Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in jail and put on probation, an outcome that critics have blasted as too lenient. Michele Dauber, a Stanford Law School professor, told me it sets a “dangerous precedent.” Dauber and others have advocated for the recall of Judge Aaron Persky, who sentenced Turner, and whose judicial position was elected. (Persky is running unopposed for re-election in November.) Others have called the vitriol directed at the judge alarming. Santa Clara County’s public defender described it as “hysteria,” according to The New York Times.
Regardless of Persky’s fate, there’s a larger question that the furor over Turner’s sentencing poses: If people’s anger doesn’t simply dissolve or burn up, what sorts of social and cultural changes might come from the outcry over the Stanford rape case?
A “national conversation” has long been the shorthand to describe discussion of subjects, positive and negative, that draw widespread public attention. But only in the internet age have national conversations—in which anyone with a web connection can participate—truly been possible. This is, technologically and culturally, something of a miracle. It can also create quite a mess. On platforms like Facebook and Twitter, any attempts at civil discourse, especially about matters as charged as rape, tend to quickly unravel. The tenor of national conversations, even among those who agree with one another, often crescendo to fever pitch—and not necessarily productively. Online, as my colleague Ian Bogost put it recently, “everyone is scrambling to make their voices louder than everyone else’s. The loudest, it turns out, get to be right.”