Sunday, June 7, 2015

Duggar scandal has legitimate news value - get over it

While the Duggar sex abuse drama has played out so publicly over the past few weeks, some on the right (such as Sarah Palin) have cried foul over what they see as a media double-standard in the way that Lena Dunham's admission of sexually abusing her younger sister generated far less controversy when it was revealed last year.

This discrepancy in public condemnation, they reason, is evidence of a 'liberal media' plot to attack conservatives by targeting a family that, up until recently, had emobodied the conservative Christian family in the public imagination, even if they themselves are too extreme to be a truly representative sample. (To the best of my knowledge your typical Christian family doesn't approach their family size with that much theological machismo, nor do they normally run their homestead like a cult compound in full cultural lockdown. I could be wrong.)

Do the tighty-righties have a point? Does the glare of scandal surrounding Jim Bob, Michelle and their outsized litter of Duggarbots really signify some nefarious hatchet job on the part of a media hell-bent on bringing down anyone to the right of Che Guevara? Or is this complaint merely so much manufactured outrage at a journalism industry just doing its job?

To even begin to consider this, we need to first open a can of iced tea, have some dip, and look at this issue with a bit of emotional detachment. The topic of sexual abuse tends to get people all worked up, and rightfully so. However, to sublimate this worked-uppedness into compaints about a perceived political bias in the media is a little disingenuous, and ignores the reality that there is far more to the Duggar case than just the abuse acts themselves.

For starters, let's look at what Josh Duggar and Lena Dunham have in common vis-a-vis the transgressions in question:

  • They have both admitted to sexually-abusing younger siblings.

Er, that's it.

Now let me say that an act of sex abuse in and of itself committed by a social conservative like Josh Duggar is no worse than one committed by someone more 'hip', like Lena Dunham. (The fact that Duggar has admitted to multiple victims doesn't absolve Dunham in any way for her lower victim count.)

As for what separates these two cases, let's get a list going:

  • Josh Duggar was 14 when he is known to have sexually-abused his sisters, with some of them being much, much younger. Lena Dunham was seven. As I said above, all sex abuse should be condemned - however, a 14-year-old, particularly one raised in such a morally-upright environment as the Duggar compound, should know much better not to molest than someone half his age. For Sarah Palin to angrily call Dunham a pedophile seems desperate and politically self-serving.
  • Lena Dunham hasn't held herself up as a paragon of sexual morality, nor has she ever accused any demographic of being prone to child molestation on the basis of their lifestyle, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Josh Duggar, on the other hand, was making a career out of it via his post as Executive Director of the Family Research Center, which has been notorious for continuing to perpetuate a study puporting to show causal links between homosexuality and child molestation. Problem is, this study has long been discredited.)
  • Further to the above, Lena Dunham isn't from a decidedly political family that is using its reality show platform as a stealth way to bring pop culture recognizability (and hence validity) to themselves and, by association, their political, cultural and spiritual pursuits. (Yes, I can hear some of you saying that Dunham is using her platform to advance a liberal agenda. Even if this is true, however, there is a difference between advancing a mere political agenda and using that agenda to promote hatred of a given demographic. See the second-last paragraph below for more.)
  • Lena Dunham didn't sue to keep her state's department of child services from further investigations by having files and testimony from the original police investigation (such as it was) kept sealed. Josh Duggar did just that in 2007.
  • There is no evidence of a cover-up in the Lena Dunham case, other than she herself keeping her mouth shut until going public about it in her autobiography. On the other hand, there was indeed a cover-up on the Duggar compound potentially involving one local police officer (since convicted of child pornography) and a church community that apparently had full knowledge of the incidents but chose to stay silent. Personally, I think the Duggar cover-up was an attempt to protect the Arkansas political establishment in general, and Jim Bob's political fortunes in particular. I've already written about this, and have no desire to rehash it here other than to restate my view that the abuse itself is the source of the scandal, but not the true scandal itself.

That about covers it. In the most general sense, the Duggars exist in our pop culture for the purpose of showing the rest of us how we're supposed to live. On their TLC show, 19 Kids and Counting, they have presented a selective version of their reality, as is the case for any 'reality' show. Where this becomes problematic is in how they have parlayed their genuine on-camera likeability into political pursuits many of their viewers would find objectionable, such as Michelle's retrograde robocall to lobby voters to not support a city council resolution to allow trans people to use public washrooms consistent with their gender identity. In said robocall, Michelle warned that of course men in dresses would soon be preying on children in public washrooms unless something was done about it.

The controversy differential between Josh and Lena's respective acts of abuse would be galling if it weren't for the fact that the Duggars have set themselves up as moral authorities on sexuality, and in the process contributed to anti-gay and anti-trans bias by smearing both groups with the taint of child molestation, real or imagined. And in setting themselves up in such a way, they have set themselves up for a hard fall.

And for this reason, we can't blame the media for simply having a healthy sense of news judgement.