Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

A Rape Or An Opportunity?

How we train our eye determines what we will allow ourselves to see

Marina Lonina, an 18-year-old in Ohio, is charged in connection with the rape of her friend; she didn’t try to help her friend, but rather livestreamed the assault online. Excerpts:

Mr. O’Brien, the prosecutor, said Ms. Lonina had apparently hoped that live-streaming the attack would help to stop it, but that she became enthralled by positive feedback online.

“She got caught up in the likes,” he said.

She got caught up in the likes. So, if the mob cheers a rape, then it’s okay by Marina Lonina? Lonina’s lawyer claims that she video’d the rape on the Periscope app to preserve evidence of the crime. More:

In an interview on Monday, Mr. O’Brien acknowledged that for roughly 10 seconds during the 10-minute video Ms. Lonina pulled the leg of the victim, who he said cried out during the attack saying “no,” “stop” and “help me.” It was not clear though that she intended to help the victim, he said.

“For the most part she is just streaming it on the Periscope app and giggling and laughing,” Mr. O’Brien said.

Ms. Lonina did not call 911, he added.

Monster. Throw the book at her. How do you go from being somebody’s friend to being the kind of person who videotapes her rape for the sake of an online audience? I’m reminded of Alypius’s corruption at a gladiatorial match. From Augustine’s Confessions, this account of how his friend fell victim to bloodlust:

He had gone on to Rome before me to study law . . . and there he was carried away again with an incredible passion for the gladiatorial shows. For, although he had been utterly opposed to such spectacles and detested them, one day he met by chance a company of his acquaintances and fellow students returning from dinner; and, with a friendly violence, they drew him, resisting and objecting vehemently, into the amphitheater, on a day of those cruel and murderous shows.

He protested to them: “Though you drag my body to that place and set me down there, you cannot force me to give my mind or lend my eyes to these shows. Thus I will be absent while present, and so overcome both you and them.”

When they heard this, they dragged him on in, probably interested to see whether he could do as he said. When they got to the arena, and had taken what seats they could get, the whole place became a tumult of inhuman frenzy. But Alypius kept his eyes closed and forbade his mind to roam abroad after such wickedness.

Would that he had shut his ears also! For when one of the combatants fell in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirred him so strongly that, overcome by curiosity and still prepared (as he thought) to despise and rise superior to it no matter what it was, he opened his eyes and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the victim whom he desired to see had been in his body. Thus he fell more miserably than the one whose fall had raised that mighty clamor which had entered through his ears and unlocked his eyes to make way for the wounding and beating down of his soul, which was more audacious than truly valiant–also it was weaker because it presumed on its own strength when it ought to have depended on Thee.

For, as soon as he saw the blood, he drank in with it a savage temper, and he did not turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness–delighted with the wicked contest and drunk with blood lust. He was now no longer the same man who came in, but was one of the mob he came into, a true companion of those who had brought him thither.

Why need I say more? He looked, he shouted, he was excited, and he took away with him the madness that would stimulate him to come again: not only with those who first enticed him, but even without them; indeed, dragging in others besides.

There is something about online culture that facilitates this kind of thing. We’ve all felt it at one point or another — the sense that life is an ongoing spectacle, and we are all observers looking for a new thrill. I expect that nearly all of us here would have behaved differently than Marina Lonina did in that situation. But what if we had been raised in an online culture that conditioned us to respond as voyeurs, and as voyeurs whose self-worth depends on producing a greater spectacle for the mob?

In his book From Nature To Creation, Duke University theologian Norman Wirzba talks about how nobody’s gaze is innocent, because it can create idols:

Our looking at something — how we look at it, and the fact that we are looking at it rather than something else — presupposes an interest and an intention. As people who want to know what something is, we have expectations, desires, and fears that invariably shape how something appears to us. This means that our looking at something is also at the same time (though not always knowingly) a looking at ourselves, because whatever we see is mediated by the boredom, anxiety, or hope we happen to feel. Our gazing at something includes a mirror reflection of the gazer’s capacities, dispositions, and expectations.

When Marina Lonina looked at her friend being raped and found it to be an entertainment that she wanted to share with strangers, she was really looking at herself, you might say. That hideous spectacle was mediated not only by her smartphone, but by her boredom, anxiety, and perversion, because she is the sort of person who can watch a friend get raped and see it as something entertaining.

Wirzba writes:  “Idolatry is one of humanity’s great sins because it encourages us to see and represent reality as, and thus limit reality to, the sphere of human power and convenience.”

What is the idol to which Marina Lonina bowed here? She saw and represented the reality of a sexual assault as something that was interesting, and desirable to share with others. All she really saw was her own desire: a desire for kink, I guess, and a desire to make her friend who was being raped into an object for public consumption, which she, Lonina, exchanged for the sake of the mob’s approval.

What interests me is what Marina Lonina looked at that led her to that point. On what did her gaze rest on the days, weeks, and years leading up to that night? Why was her response, when seeing what the man was doing to her friend, to livestream the rape rather than to help free her friend, or call 911, or run out of the house to get help?

Why did she see a man raping her friend, and not see a man raping her friend, but saw something entertaining? Everything that we choose to see — and choose not to see — trains our eyes. Wirzba says we have to embrace asceticism, choosing to train ourselves to see the world as it is, not as we would have it be:

Asceticism is the discipline and art that, at its best, enables us to contemplate the beauty that radiates throughout creation. As such, asceticism is the prelude to true perception. … One’s manner of approaching the world determines the kind of world one sees. Asceticism is all about attending to customary ways of approaching others that lead to distortion because what we see is dominated by the anxiety or hubris or insecurity we so often feel.

Asceticism — the disciplining of the passions — is the last thing the world today wants — which is precisely why it’s the thing this world needs. I like this distinction he makes:

Monastic detachment, we can now see, is not detachment from the world, as if created things were somehow evil, but rather detachment from oneself and from the deep desires that get in the way of welcoming others for who or what they are.

… How we name and narrate the world is important because it is our naming and narrating that determine how we will relate to it. It is thus of the highest importance that the intellect be trained to watch for how the passions infiltrate and distort the conceptual images we make of things.

Again, it is possible that Marina Lonina was carried away by the moment against her best instincts, as Alypius was. But it is also possible that the things Marina Lonina had allowed herself to see, and take pleasure in seeing, in the years leading up to that awful moment trained her intellect to regard it not as a rape, but as a media opportunity.




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