[Update: this was written before I was aware of any of the allegations of rape and assault – beyond the video. I’ve fixed certain parts within the post, but keep in mind that I wrote this responding to the videos. Which I thought was the extent of the controversy. Clearly he is much worse than I thought]
If you have gone anywhere near Youtube in the past week then you might have heard rumblings about a youtuber facing charges of asexual assault after posting a ‘prank’ video on his channel depicting him touching the behinds of several unsuspecting women. The person’s name at the center of all of this drama is Sam Pepper. I’ve never liked Sam Pepper. More than a few times I’ve voiced my concern in the comment section of his ‘public kissing prank’ videos where he walks around Venice beach approaching women and ‘asking’ them for a kiss, or to make-out with him.
The first in a series of three shows him groping the bottoms of unsuspecting women. The second, released days after, shows women groping the bottoms of men. Like the matrix movies, the third installment sucked. In it he claims that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax to highlight the disparity between attention given to women suffering sexual assault and attention given to men suffering sexual assault. He shares experiences where he was the victim of groping and inappropriate touching at conventions and meet-ups. Prominent You-tubers like Laci Green have come forward in support of the women in these ‘pranks’ and the very reasonable request for him not to be so shitty to people, regardless of gender. Many well-thought responses have already been made, and you can find some here, here and here.
There’s been plenty of debate about the ethical implications of what Sam did and the legitimacy of his claims of forethought and intention. It appears as though the ‘consent’ he had gotten from the women in the first video was acquired after he actually groped them – contrary to what ‘they all knew what was happening’ implies.
What I want to talk about is the way in which many people have responded to these claims and his videos. From prominent youtubers, the response has been split. Some, like Hank Green were less understanding of what Sam did, while others, like Laci Green, were very empathetic and showed restraint and wisdom. When something like this happens to a community it does split up opinion. I don’t condone what Sam did, and I’m actually glad that he is being forced to reconsider his Youtuber aspirations, but I don’t condone a witch-hunt either. Most people, even Hank, were understanding and precise in their criticisms. Even still, mob-mentality can get the better of a community quickly. And since this community is largely young people, the risk is even greater.
So why is this a risk? If Sam Pepper really did do the things he’s accused of (including new allegations of assault of underage girls ) then why shouldn’t he be shamed and outcast?
Well, here’s the controversial thing I want to say. I’ve tried writing this a few times, but I just can’t seem to find the right words. I don’t want to give the impression to anyone that I’m condoning what Sam did, and accepting assault as normal behavior. When a thief steals he should have to give back the money he stole. The methodology for responding to thiefs is pretty straight forward. Stealing, while an offense, and not bereft of ethical quandaries, is more understandable than sexual assault. That’s why thieves generally don’t have a difficult time assimilating back into society and the culture of perhaps even communities victimized by his theft. However, there aren’t legitimate protocols for responding to someone stealing. We know to call the police, and the police know to detain the thief and charge them as they see fit. But beyond legal proceedings there isn’t some rule for us, the public, to follow responding to the thief. That’s where the division and polarizing originates. Some people who perhaps had to steal can empathize with the thief and see no point shaming them into oblivion. And some people are ignorant of the causes behind stealing and take umbrage reflexively with anyone who deviates from the norms of their life. There is no appropriate way to respond.
What happens when someone does something more dangerous and shocking, as Sam has, is that people respond according to common sense. As Laci Green put it in a tweet responding to Sams’ fans telling her to kill herself, “this is just basic human being stuff’. But is it? Our cultural norms and values inform our common sense. But the way we respond to situations like the one Sam is in redefines and refines cultural norms and values. It’s a cycle. As Stacey Goguen put it, “The custom creates the narrative from which it is supposedly derived”. I fear that in shaming people like Sam, and using polarizing language (like ‘evil’, ‘piece of shit’, and ‘disgusting human being’), we’re treating Sam as he treated those women he abused. Now there’s the controversial statement. What I mean is that we’re dehumanizing Sam, reducing him to his worst actions, actions that carry stigma and violate social norms. And the pressure of maintaining or defining a social standing or relationships causes many to act without questioning, and conversely prevents people from questioning before acting.
If you’ve ever read the U.S. code then some of the definitions in many subsections might strike you as worrying. I talked about this in a previous post about ISIL. The law is not supposed to be beyond falsification. And although reverence for the law does make communities safe, we cannot think that it’s beyond imperfection. Some of the shittiest people in our society are lawyers – especially in America. People who establish precedents and write bills aren’t always the wisest and the most beneficent. So although Sam probably will be convicted, and does deserve to be convicted, when you look closely at the language used in this discussion, it appears as though he’s going to carry this sentence for life.
Sam is a human being. I’ve been very happy with the way some people have responded to this problem. But it seems overwhelmingly that people are perfectly content with condemning him for life. Even if he is some outrageous sociopath, he’s still a human being. Treating him like a character instead of a person deprives us of insight into why people do things like this, and prevents us from establishing a less sensuous, and more thoughtful community. Because we’re all partly to blame then? Well not precisely. If Sam did rape and did do the things he’s accused of, only he is ultimately responsible. However, if overwhelmingly we dehumanize Sam like he dehumanized all of these girls, then we’re missing an important point. For-sure he’s a douchebag, but from the mixed responses to this scandal is a glaring proof that we are failing miserably at properly empathizing with other people. We reduce them into these objects of their ‘sins’. That’s the place we’re at. Obviously there’s more to sexual assault then a thought process, but changing the thought process is a invaluable step in preventing sexual assaults from taking place.
[Update: In light of recent rape allegations I’d urge whoever reads the following passage consider that I wrote this while the problem was still sexual assualt in the videos. It seems Sam really is like the Sociopath Pharma Exec]
So on to the problem of shaming. Shaming isn’t entirely wrong. When you have a person who has been given all the chances I’m talking about to recant and come to the light (by understanding and proper methodologies based on empathizing and recognizing that everyone else is a person too (way to go, redundancy neurons), that person probably deserves to be shamed. The goal of shaming here is at least somewhat defined. The goal of shaming Sam is not defined. It’s just something people are doing because he’s violated cultural norms, because it’s socially salient, and among other things, because we treat Sam like he treats girls. Because that’s just how we treat people. That’s how we justify buying iphones that were assembled by children and adults living and working in horrible conditions. That’s how we justify hording millions of dollars because we ‘worked for it’, even though thousands in our communities are never given the opportunity to ‘work for it’. When we shame the sociopath pharma exec who just did rotten things for decades and decades, without remorse, we’re trying to bring some justice back to the victims, and to ourselves. I argue with my therapist sometimes over what I see as the value of defending yourself, without contingency, when people treat you like sam treated those girls. And this is where it gets confusing, but stay with me. Like the quote about customs and narratives, the tragedy of immorality is that it creates immorality. When you treat someone horribly, if that pain and suffering is not recognized and dealt with, over-time that person will become shitty. That’s how shitty people become shitty people. And that’s how good people become good people. We are inherently social. Everything from our thoughts to our goals is socially tinged. Morality is social. When you have nobody in your corner telling you that what so and so did was wrong, and recognizing your pain and suffering and helping you appropriately deal with it, in order to remain moral you have to plug your ears, kick and shout and stridently hold onto your ideals. The ideals that tell you that what happened to you is wrong. So it looks like I just contradicted myself. But again, stick with me. Shaming the sociopath pharma exec is a community endevour, and re-introduces justice back to those people, and to everyone involved. It prevents everyone from losing their moral compass. The goals there are well-defined and they are justified. Because the pharma exec is so powerful not even a large community could stop him. So shaming broadens that community as well as maintains the goals of justice. You’re shaming a person because they are always on the attack and never show any remorse. The problem with shaming as a community is that not everyone involved is involved for the right reasons. There’s no protocols, really. It can become futile. It can, and often does, lose its potential value. We don’t return back to the ideals we’re trying to prevent, and honesty, most of the time people aren’t trying to prevent the loss of ideals. They’re just reflexively lashing out.
Shaming someone for me is appropriate in those two cases: with a figure of what most might call ‘evil’, when all other attempts to understand and compromise have failed and they’ve retained all their vigorous evil. And for when you’re all alone and people are treating you horribly. And everyone is absent, and you have no support. With this Sam Scandal, neither is the case. There is definitely a pattern of abuse with Sam, but treating the pharma exec that way is usually also for most people just an instinctive response to grave danger as much as it is an attempt to return to the victims a sense of moral justification. Because that moral justification is only really needed in that form when you’re completely alone. The great thing about this Sam drama is that no one is alone. So many people have shown their support. So why are we shaming him? I get that we’re emotionally fragile and sensuous and respond with anger and hair-pulling to nonsense like this, but we’re better than that, and we all need better than that. We are all determined. Free-will is an illusion. Saying that doesn’t prevent us from reaching our goal. But, what is our goal anyway? That’s something we should all consider. The goal shouldn’t be just ‘finally locking up someone who is just super bad’. The goal should be preventing this stuff from happening. I always say, justice occurs before an injustice takes place. Too often we think of justice as only this reparative thing. Like killing someone who killed your loved one is justice (a common movie trope). Preventing this stuff, unfortunately, starts with treating everyone always as a person. That’s the big shocking principle behind the golden rule. That means we also all have to treat ourselves as persons do. Which we do. When these victims come out we all congratulate them for their bravery, for standing up for their selves. Treating yourself as a ‘person’, and treating everyone else as a ‘person’ go hand in hand. We’re not letting Sam do either, and thus we’re doing neither to Sam. And, honestly, we rarely even do it to ourselves. (The evidence for this is everywhere. It’s part of the reason why we self-harm (when we’d never just go cut someone else when they’re sad), and demonstrated in our ‘norms’ about self-pity and the stigma of being a coward. Funny how that coward-hero dynamic plays out. You’re a hero if you act selflessly (an ultra valued commodity, qua liberation theology) and sacrifice your life for the good of others. But the impulse is derived from a valuation of human life – just not your own. And we call people cowards who aren’t just selfishly evil, sacrificing others for their own survival or well-being. But people who are ‘afraid’, or ‘sad’, or ‘frightened’. We tell them to be ‘brave’).
With new rape allegations and impending legal action mounting I hope we can keep our head about us. When I watched the anonymous confessions detailing explicitly rape I became livid. I do not think I could keep my cool as Laci Green did. I’m starting to question some of the things that I wrote in this post. I think considering the type of guy it’s becoming more clear Sam is, we do have a right to treat him like we would the pharma exec. I can’t comprehend how or why someone would do this. But they do, and beyond the immediate desire to thrash him I feel like it’s important that we know why. I don’t know what to say anymore.