Editorial column. Originally appeared in the Journal Inquirer.
By Kristen J. Tsetsi
My Facebook feed exploded with messages of outrage and ire over the weekend.
Representative Todd Akin, R-MO, had just said what will very likely go down as the gaffe of the political season.
In the unlikely event that you haven’t seen the video or read a portion of the transcript from his interview on a program called the Jaco Report, this is what he said:
“It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy as a result of rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. Let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work, or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”
Whether a gaffe or a distinction Akin firmly believes in, the words “legitimate rape” were suddenly everywhere, along with renewed conviction to fight the republican “war on women.”
I won’t deny that, at first, I joined in. Who would dare use the phrase “legitimate rape”? And who would think a logical argument in favor of criminalizing abortion for rape victims is, “Well, rape pregnancies hardly ever happen…”?
Never mind the questionable claim that female rape victims’ bodies manufacture sperm-killing chemicals that will prevent pregnancy. Granted, Akin may have been taught the same thing many children in health classes have been taught, which is that the female system has the ability to selectively reject sperm it finds incompatible. But that is neither exclusive to rape victims nor a relevant point in a conversation about terminating a pregnancy that has already occurred.
But last night, during a conversation with my husband, who also took issue with Akin’s use of “legitimate rape,” something struck me: there was actually nothing wrong with it. After all, haven’t we given it a place in our vocabulary after creating such phrases as “date rape” (which is ostensibly different from “legitimate rape” because the victim knew the attacker) and “statutory rape” (used even when the sex is consensual and between partners who may differ in age by as little as six months)?
What are we doing to raise the level of discourse in this election?
We continually fall into fits of frenzy over phrases either taken out of context or blown out of proportion and lose sight of the larger issues that will actually make a difference in people’s lives.
In January, Mitt Romney was vilified for saying, “I like being able to fire people.” His opposition (and social media) latched onto those words with ferocity, somehow completely ignoring what came immediately before that and with which most of us, as Americans living in a capitalist system and enjoying the freedoms we hold, would agree: “I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them.”
Are we not a people who want what we want when we want it, and if we don’t get it the way we like it, we take our business elsewhere (in other words, “fire” the unsatisfactory business, company, or provider)?
If we’re honest, most of us will admit that we, too, like having the freedom to fire people.
Some months after Romney’s gaffe, President Barack Obama was criticized with equal zeal and venom for saying, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”
Once again, everything preceding that now-famous line was disregarded, perhaps because it’s too difficult to disagree with:
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges.”
Even the most left- and right-wing voters would have to agree that neither Romney nor Obama said anything particularly offensive in the above cases. Yet, this distraction of sound bite gaffes happens again and again, and we allow it, doing little to resist the temptation to get self-righteous and beat our chests at meaningless verbal slips and manufactured scandals fanned by people with as much creativity as those who use women in bikinis to sell everything from cars to websites.
When we grasp at these small phrases and let them become the conversation, we ignore the real issues. “Legitimate rape” is an issue because we as a society have decided some rape isn’t, apparently, legitimate. But that isn’t the thrust of Akin’s position. His position is that rape victims should be forced to carry their forced pregnancies to term, and this is a man who – in the same interview – praises our country’s “respect for life.” A respect that doesn’t seem to extend, in his mind, to the lives of the impregnated rape victims.
I beg of us all – let’s not continue to be the base audience politicians’ spin doctors believe us to be. That makes it far too easy for them to bury the larger messages that will become real issues after we’ve wasted all of our energy battling the “gaffes.”