“I’m not a sexual predator, I’m an ‘offender,’” Jeffrey Epstein said in 2011. “It’s the difference between a murderer and a person who steals a bagel.” Mr. Epstein had just completed his outrageously light jail sentence for the outrageously soft-pedaled crime of soliciting prostitution with a minor. The many credible accusations of his long, well-documented history of buying, selling and raping underage girls were somehow whittled down to a manageable offense, and his heinous behavior went largely unpunished.
Happily, plea deals are not irrevocable, and on Monday, Mr. Epstein was arrested again. He may actually face justice this time. The legal system may be ready to charge him for victimizing girls, but the public is less clear that’s who his victims truly were. A few years ago, a Rutgers biologist told Reuters with respect to the Epstein case, “By the time they’re 14 or 15, they’re like grown women were 60 years ago, so I don’t see these acts as so heinous.” Reporters for The Palm Beach Post and The New York Times have repeatedly referred to his victims as “young women,” CBS News has weirdly called them “underage females,” and The Washington Post originally referred to them as “underage women” before quickly changing the term to “girls.”
More than one prominent Twitter commenter thought it was important to hash out whether his crime was pedophilia or ephebophilia (though The Stranger’s Katie Herzog added, “not that this makes it okay”), and, in a now-deleted tweet, whether we can call a girl a “child” if she reaches the ripe old age of 14 before she is bought, bound and raped by a man four times her age. (Full disclosure: Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, who wrote the deleted tweet, has previously written for America).
Legally, and morally, and by any sane measure, she is a child, no matter how much makeup she wears, how sassy she talks, what crowd she runs with.
The answer is, of course: Yes, she is a child. Legally, and morally, and by any sane measure, she is a child, no matter how much makeup she wears, how sassy she talks, what crowd she runs with, or what she does next after her predator lets her go. No matter how much taller she is than, say, a 5-year-old. Those were children Mr. Epstein is accused of trafficking; and people who want to argue that a teenager is not a child, per se—well, it is fair to wonder why they care so much.
Some of them will say it is just that accuracy matters, and they like to be precise in their speech. And that is fine. I know people like this: They will go to their grave insisting that they are emitting “terminal respiratory secretions” and not a “death rattle.” Some people just like precision, and they like it all the time. These people are rare.
Use technically accurate terms that sanitize the truth and you can often plea bargain your way down to a lesser charge in the public eye.
Most people are comfortable with imprecision when it suits them. They deal in a variegated mishmash of facts and hyperbole, poetry and science, precision and allusion; and this is normal. That is why the assertion that precision is of the utmost importance, especially if it implies that a lesser evil has been done, may be a red flag. We need to ask, at those moments, if these careful distinctions serve to ignore, oppress or denigrate someone who is vulnerable.
When Mr. Epstein made his ghastly joke about being a mere “offender,” like someone who steals a bagel, he was onto something powerful. Use technically accurate terms that sanitize the truth and you can often plea bargain your way down to a lesser charge in the public eye. We saw this when indignant voices were appalled that anyone would accuse our own countrymen of something as barbaric as torture in Abu Ghraib. No, what they were engaged in was something very specific and clinical-sounding, a precise kind of technique they called “enhanced interrogation.” (Which is torture.) We saw this when pro-choicers suddenly went to the wall for the notion that “fetal pole cardiac activity” was the proper nomenclature to describe the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in a four-chambered organ (which is what medical experts and we pro-life bumpkins alike call “a heartbeat”).
Cui bono? Who benefits from squeezing language until it bleeds jargon? The guilty, of course.
But another important question is: Cui plagalis? Who stands to lose? Whose suffering is likely to be minimized if normally careless people suddenly become very careful about their word choice?
Whose suffering is likely to be minimized if normally careless people suddenly become very careful about their word choice?
I do not believe that we can assume anyone who argues for a bright moral line between teenagers and children is a pedophile (or ephebophile, or oh dear lord please stop making me know about such things). It is tempting, but probably unfair to assume that anyone who soft-pedals abuse is an abuser himself.
Then why do it? To sound smart. To sound edgy. Or because they want to believe the victim is partially guilty. This is what we saw after news of systematically abused seminarians came out. Young men were pressured or forced into homosexual acts with their superiors. It was dreadful news, but less dreadful for Catholics who imagine you could only find yourself in such a fix if you were partially willing, or even part of a deliberate campaign. Why didn’t they fight back, or at least report the abuse? After all, they were men, not children. Can we call it assault, precisely, or did they let it happen? And the question remains the same: With this thirst for precision, cui plagalis?
Social media convulsed over whether we could justly call an ICE detention center a “concentration camp,” or whether that name demonstrated disrespect to Holocaust survivors and victims of the internment of Japanese Americans. And as the tweets flew back and forth and hashtags multiplied, all the while a 14-year-old child paced up and down, up and down her concrete cell, trying to quiet the sobs of a urine-soaked baby she had just met. That baby doesn’t care what name you call his cell. Neither does the girl. They just want to be released.
Games over semantics, no matter who is playing them, are just games; and when we play, that means we are not working. That means we are not fighting for justice for the very people whose status we are wrangling over.
As soon as we create a hierarchy of victimhood, we are asking victims to compete with each other, shoving them into an amphitheater of suffering, goading them into fighting it out to earn our precious compassion. One portion of the crowd roars, “Save death row inmates!” while another one answers, “No, save unborn babies!” “Help starving Africans!” hollers one throng. “No, help homeless vets!” another screams back. And meanwhile, inmates and babies and the starving and the homeless wait, and wait, and wait for help.
You do not have to play this game. You do not have to choose sides with one victim against another. You do not have to enter into some excruciating examination of the details of a crime before you can call it evil, before you can say the victim needs justice. Just call it evil, and leave a more precise diagnosis to the experts who are trying to rectify it.
So take note, whenever a new word or phrase is “trending.” It’s trending for a reason. Almost certainly, someone has deliberately introduced a carefully chosen bit of semantics into the environment for the purpose of altering public opinion.
Cui bono, and cui plagalis? Ask yourself.
You do not have to play this game. Look instead to the victim, and look for justice.