Wednesday, April 24, 2013

“Legitimate Rape”

Crime is common.  Logic is rare.  Therefore it is upon the logic  rather than upon the crime  that you should dwell.”
-- Sherlock Holmes (“Adventure of the Copper Beeches”, 1892)

What! (you say) Is Dr Justice about to deliver a lazy late-hit, and -- quite superfluously -- join the ever-rising pious pile-on atop this season’s easiest target?

Not a bit of it;  nor shall I defend that hapless man.   But by way of linguistic hygiene, it is time to make a basic point.   There has been a lot of linguistically illiterate (or pretendedly so) chortling over that unfortunate phrase “legitimate rape”.    I assumed that folks were simply seizing the opportunity of taking a swipe at a political opponent in the inviting shape of a juicy asking-for-it butt;  yet the same semantic paltering is promoted in the lead editorial of this week’s New Yorker, so the matter needs a note.

Consider a phrase like a strong cup of coffee. 
I pause, while you see if anything seems amiss.  It does not.  Yet strictly, this is a case of what philologers call enallage adjectivi (en-AL-uh-jee ad-YEK-tiv-ee) -- logically, the modifier is misplaced.   The intended meaning is :  a cup of strong coffee;  the cup itself is neither weak nor strong, and indeed might serve  upon subsequent occasion  for a weak cup of tea.

Now consider a company announcement:
“In cases of legitimate illness, employees are permitted to…”   The intent is not a medical pronunciamento, classifying illnesses themselves, sheep- and goat-wise, into “legitimate” and “illegitimate”;  the refererence is to claims of illness :  cases where the worker is (as one might say) “legitimately ill” (which means no more than:  really/actually/indeed ill) as opposed to taking one of those “sick” days (I am told that such things exist, by a friend of a friend) that have less to do with pathology than with the fact that you’re expecting the cable guy, or you’re sulking in your tent because you didn’t get a raise, or it’s the opening game of the season.  A company might well have a policy to the effect that  cases of the latter sort will be indulgently overlooked if they don’t become too frequent, but that, if you personally have promised to deliver the keynote address at the annual stockholders’ meeting, or to scan the morning’s query against the imminent threat of the dirty bomb, then if you don’t show up, it had better be for some reason other than the cable guy.

So now to our phrase of the day.
“I’ve heard that, in cases of legitimate rape, a woman is able to…” whereupon follows some idiosyncratic endocrinology.   Deride the latter as freely as you please, it is nothing to our point;  but with our newly refreshed semantic sensorium, let us explicate what the ham-handed wordsmith intended by his ill-coined phrase.
We have not far to seek:  He meant, of course legitimate claims of rape;  that is to say, truthful assertions of the form “this fetus is the result of rape”.   He was not saying or thinking or implying that sometimes it is legitimate -- morally okay -- to rape someone;  and to pretend that he meant that, or that such is the natural construal of his words, is disingenuous.

Now -- the phrase, so construed, still does legitimately raise a red flag (er, raise a legitimate red flag, a flag of legitimate redness -- ah, you know what I mean).   For, that occurrence of “legitimate illness” made sense  only against a shared pragmatic background of knowledge that a fairish percentage of sick-day claims are not founded upon any actual physical illness (as opposed to coming down with a case of Primavera baseballia and the like).  So:  Is our politician maintaining -- or rather, not overtly maintaining, but assuming, as a discourse presupposition -- that many claims of having been raped are false? 
Actually -- follow me closely, now -- he need not be assuming anything of the sort, since the specific cases in question are not those of “I was raped” generally, but “This pregnancy resulted from rape” -- a far, far narrower class.   Is the speaker claiming (or rather  -- again -- taking the proposition as given) that a significant number of those (far rarer and more serious) claims are false?

[Answer after I have had dinner.   In the meantime, write down your own analysis, using a well-sharpened number-two pencil.  Or post a Comment.
C U soon …]


[So!  Back from my humble repast (rich in proteins, and well-watered by wine) -- time for some post-prandial ratiocination.]

The political background is this.
Nowadays, post-Roe-v.-Wade, abortion is (at least legally) relatively easy to obtain.  (Whether it is easy in practice, depends on personal circumstances; after all, a lot of people have difficulty either finding or affording adequate dental care, though there is no law against dentists.)   In this context, there are basically two camps:

(1a) “ “Pro-Choice” “, supporting “abortion on demand” (sometimes sharpened into (1b) “free abortion on demand”, which makes about as much sense as “free root-canals on demand”).
(2a) Moderate “ “ Pro-Life “ “, urging the criminalization of abortion except in cases of rape or incest.

Our logical readers will have noticed that (2a) is neither the contrary nor the contradictory of (1).  And indeed, there is a faction -- let us call them the “Ultras”, who uphold the direct antithesis:

(2b)  No abortions.  No exceptions.  Period.

It is into this latter camp  that our ill-starred wordwright  falls.

(Please continue to bear in mind that, politically, I am not here advocating or opposed anything, since, to that debate, I have nothing to add, beyond logico-linguistical clarity.)

[Whoa!  "The Big Broadcast" -- Johnny Dollar.  Gotta go.
 Not claiming a "sick day", just taking a break.]


[Intermezzo caprizioso]   A word on that fixed phrase, “rape or incest”, inscribed in stone like “peanut-butter and jelly” or “Laurel and Hardy”.   Sociologically, morally, the collocation makes perfect sense.  But practically, there is a certain redundancy:  for, in practice, any claim of having participated in incest is also accompanied by a claim of having been raped.  No-one simply shrugs and says, “Sure we got it on, so what?  You don’t understand -- My dad is really hot.  Only  I don’t want a kid with two heads.”

Now, most conservatives fall into (2a).   So, any proponent of (2b) has his work cut out for him, since he must face the massed forces -- strange bedfellows -- of both (1) and (2a).  What to do?

Obviously, he must somehow attack the rape-exception.  (The matter of incest  may, for reasons noted above, be left aside.)  What to do?

The honest way would be to make the unimpeachably logical point  (let us call it “Argument A”) that such an exception would constitute a “moral hazard” (I don’t mean “moral i.e. sex”, I mean the technical legal term that applies, for instance, to 100% federal deposit insurance).  For, before such a proposed ban on abortion, women had no incentive to claim rape (let alone incest).  But under (2a), they could not obtain an abortion -- unless they claimed rape.  Such claims are difficult (and politically untouchable) to disprove(**); hence -- again logically -- a moral hazard would obviously exist (and this, apart from some possible contingent anthropological fact that no woman, ever, anywhere, would ever lodge such a false claim (perish the thought ....) ).
[** Difficult, since, for the claim to prevail, the claimant need by no means identify or convict the perpetrator, any more than an insurance claim for a murdered spouse  is impaired, unless the beneficiary can bring the murderer to justice and obtain a conviction.   The logical bar is very low, much lower than for the already notoriously thickety “She said -- He said” class of actions, for in this case there need be no identified “he” who might respond. Whoso should say “Ortcutt did it”, incurs a burden of proof;  but “Someone did it” incurs nothing of the sort.]

Now, most of my readers undoubtedly fall into (1) or (2a), simply by statistics.  But I do hope that you can see that Argument A is, for someone who (for whatever reasons) holds (2b), both politically necessary, and logically unassailable; and that, furthermore, if for some reason (divine revelation, or whatever -- just take this as a temporary axiom here, for the sake of logical argument) (2b) were in fact the correct position (in some transcendent realm of fact), then deploying Argument A would be justified -- nay, imperative.

But our phrasemaker did not do this (at least, not in the passage quoted out of context, which is all anyone is going on, myself included).   What he put forward instead  was really quite illogical.  He maintained (contrary, apparently, to gynecological reality, though that contingent point is irrelevant to the logic of our argument) that, for such and such contingent physiological reasons, cases of actual impregnation by rape  are rare or nonexistent.
But if that were the case, why sweat it?  Why not simply join the (2a) camp, which has a much better chance of making its case?  -- As, suppose that the only politically possible constitutional amendment before Congress said, “No abortion except in cases of pregnancy induced by space-aliens via anal probes.”   A few wackos would object even to that (come to think of it, the objectors would largely fall into that sector of the voting public  most vulnerable to UFO abduction);  but most conservatives would probably say, Y’know, we can live with that.

What he should have said is:  If we allow a rape-exception, it will be abused, much as claims of sick-days are abused, or as every other loophole has been abused  throughout legal history. 

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