posted on: Thursday April 15, 2010
Jeremiah Begley ’10 / Commentary Staff
Every parent has refuted arguments along the lines of “Everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?” Deep down, however, even adults believe that a nearly universal practice cannot be all that harmful. Unfortunately, there is such a thing as mimetic pan-cultural mania, and the supposition of safety in the popular practices of the day often serves only to ensure mimetic pan-cultural myopia about the true state of affairs. There is no safety in numbers, especially when those numbers are body counts.I happened upon an extraordinary event last week in front of the Feinstein Center. Dozens of young women shared their stories of shame and survival, assault and betrayal, violation and rape. The testimony at “Take Back the Night” was indescribable, and the sheer number of witnesses was astonishing. No one deserves to endure the things we heard related. No one who has been violated is at fault. These women are victims, plain and simple. While it was neither the time nor the place to address such a question, however, one had to wonder: why is this happening?The popular view is that sexual assaults have been very frequent throughout human history, but because of their nature as attacks on modesty, they have gone drastically underreported until recently. There is truth in this, but to chalk the entire explosion of sexual assault up to a decline in underreportage is absurd. It disrespects victims of violation and ensures that “Take Back the Night” will be a major annual event until the eschaton. I do not claim to have a definitive answer to the causal questions in play, but I think it is time to question the prevailing orthodoxy—to ask whether the present harvest of violence and violation is less the fruit of age-old oppressive paternalism than of a sexual revolution which slipped its leash.In many respects, the pathology which occasions “Take Back the Night” is akin to that which necessitates another annual event, Relay for Life. Cancer is inevitably tragic, springing upon people in the prime of life and destroying their bodies from within. Like sexual assault, it is an unnecessary evil which leaves a trail of victims in its wake. While the American Cancer Society raises tons of money each year through Relay and other events, however, we never really get the message that cancer this common is absolutely unprecedented. In fact, the lethal prevalence of the major killers in our contemporary culture (cancer, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, diabetes and the like) is a relatively recent phenomenon.The public health concerns of our day suffer from their own version of the Myth of Underreportage: the Myth of Longevity. To the extent that we think about it at all, we think the reason Marcus Aurelius is virtually the only major figure to die of cancer before about 150 years ago is that people simply live long enough now to get cancer or diabetes rather than one of the Oregon Trail diseases which plague backward cultures. The fact of the matter, of course, is that living past eighty has never been unusual. The reason life expectancies used to be so low is that high rates of infant mortality pulled the averages down. Better statistical practice is only a lesson on mean, median and mode away, but we buy the story and replace the quest for a cause with the quest for a cure.In the 1930s, a dentist named Weston Price made an exhaustive medical study of hundreds of different societies throughout the world, and discovered that the healthiest cultures in terms of height, teeth, bone structure and general fitness were the “primitive” peoples of the day, who ate whole foods with an absolute minimum of processing. As soon as an ethnic group becomes “civilized,” the major health indicators start to decline. The mainstream medical community, however, mostly ignores the fact that the engorgement of the American diet with refined flour and refined sugar is almost certainly a major cause of our unprecedented rates of cancer, heart disease, and other degenerative maladies, and the food industry eagerly subsidizes its silence. Big Sugar has killed many more people than Big Tobacco, and continues its saccharine massacre unchecked.Now, if you have ever seen me in person, you know it is a little disingenuous for me to be lecturing a campus full of current and former varsity athletes about nutrition. It is also, perhaps, not my place to delve into the problem of sexual assault, since as a young man I am, in some sense, inherently part of the problem. But I do not intend to lecture so much as to ask for help on behalf of all fat, male Americans. There is commonality between the problems of degenerative disease and sexual assault, in that the conventional wisdom in each realm is neither conventional nor wise.