Of Privilege and Polanski
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
The human mind is full of contradictory impulses. For instance, I doubt that many of us want the President to do his own laundry. He's not like us; he has a special talent that we want him to exercise, so give him a pass on the socks. At the same time, we're innately egalitarian, at least according to every parent I know: From an early age, human beings want to be on an equal footing with others. No special treatment for anyone!
As people have both interpretations available, I suppose it matters a great deal how a question of privilege is framed. Do we believe that someone extraordinary deserves to be exempted from what the rest of us go through? Or do we believe the guy is trying to get ``special treatment''? (cue the three-year-olds yelling ``that's not fair!''). Often, the two narratives compete for a while, in a ``frame war'' between a person's defenders and attackers.
Roman Polanski's arrest last month in a 32-year-old sex case is a case in point. His defenders, including the French and Polish foreign ministers and number of great directors and actors say he deserves consideration because of a host of reasons: he's elderly, he suffered in his native Poland under both Nazism and Stalinism, and he is, in the words of France's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, ``a man of such talent, recognized throughout the world.''
I was inclined to accept those claims, and to put that frame in place for future Polanski news. But then I read this piece by Katha Pollitt. I'm often put off by Pollitt's Upper West Side self-importance and I was creeped out by her vengeful essay about an ex, but she sure set me straight here. Her essay efficiently demolished the ``special treatment'' case.
What weighs on the other side of the scale from the man's traumatic life and artistic achievements is the gravity of the crime, Pollitt notes: He gave alcohol and a quaalude to a 13-year-old girl in order to have sex with her. He never denied this, nor acknowledged that it was a serious assault.
In that, he's in a different position from another of his defenders, France's Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterand. After Mitterand issued statements of strong support for the director, some right-wing nutjobs drew attention to Mitterand's autobiographical novel, published in 2005, in which he admitted paying for sex with boy prostitutes in Thailand. Unlike Polanski, though, Mitterand didn't dismiss the offense. in the book, he calls the sight of young prostitutes an ``abominable spectacle'' and faults himself for giving in to the temptation to become a John. He also said none of the ``boys'' were under age. We have only his word, of course, but no one's disputed him yet.
It looks as if the Culture Minister will keep his job, then. However, his government, and Poland's, have dialled way back on their defense of Polanski. My guess, which of course could be colored by my own change of heart, is that Polanski's lost this frame war. After three weeks, most people who know about the case seem to see it in terms of equality and fairness, rather than in terms of talent claiming its fee from society. It's hard to imagine how that can change now.
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