“He must sue her for desecration of character.”

Just when I think I have used the last of the Girl-Who-Cried-Rape entries in the Little Book of Horrors, I find another one.

This student sought to do justice to the falsely-accused and therefore falsely-imprisoned victim of the Girl by suggesting seeking remedy in a civil court. Freedom was all well and good, she argued; but someone should do something to make amends for the reputation, career, and eight years of life taken from this man. If the criminal courts could do nothing for him, then a lawsuit might at least result in monetary compensation so he could move away and start over.

Now, just to be clear: the man the young woman accused of raping her was probably no angel (who of us is?). At his rape trial he had offered the alibi that he had been “hanging out with a friend.” Said friend turned out to have a prison record for assault. The defense could offer no further exculpatory or mitigating evidence.

Desecration, says Webster’s, is a violation of sanctity; outrageously irreverent treatment. But just as the man was no angel, he probably was no saint either. So we have to wonder what it was about his character that earned it a sanctity that his accuser could take away. Further, we have to wonder what the state has to do with violations of sanctity. Surely that would be a charge better taken up in an ecclesiastical court.

Oh, of course my student didn’t mean “desecration of character”; she meant defamation of character, which in fact can be grounds for a lawsuit in civil court. Webster’s claims that the meaning of “disgracing” is obsolete; what remains is “harming the reputation, as by libel or slander.” The supposed victim did stand up in court and, under oath, swear that he had raped her—he whose only contact with her was in the courtroom, and whose only other offense to the law was a drunk-and-disorderly charge after a New Year’s Eve party several years earlier (that’s how he got into what another student had called the “police picture book” from which she had selected him at random). For that matter, the judge called him a rapist in sentencing him, and the state’s whole legal system had called him a rapist as the police escorted him to prison. In fact, the state is still calling him a rapist, because the governor’s pardon released him from prison but did not expunge his criminal record. I’d say that his character has certainly been defamed: you don’t have to start out as a saint to be damaged by being identified as a rapist.

Is there a difference between the desecrated and the defamed? Yes: it is a difference of kind and perhaps of degree. Did my student know there is a difference? Either no, she did not know the difference, or no, she didn’t know there were two words involved.

Back in the days of duels and suicides over honor, perhaps there was less of a difference. At least for a gentleman, one’s name was one’s self, and injury to one was injury to the other. An untarnished or unblemished name was not only a badge of honor but also a possession, a good: one’s credibility, one’s passport to dealings with other honorable people. Such a person’s word would be his or her bond.

Nowadays the notion of honor has itself been taken down a peg or fifty, and the notion of a “good name” is malleable and relative. Less is sacred, so less is susceptible to desecration.

That’s a shame, really. There should be grave consequences, and recourse, for an unwarranted attack on one’s honor, credibility—one’s soul. Everybody is precious to somebody, and everybody should also be precious to him- or herself. To take away that preciousness for political or financial gain, or scapegoating, or sheer meanness or even indifference, is a violation of something that is in and of itself holy with or without a church’s blessing.

When that girl claimed this stranger had raped her, she defamed him. What she claimed he had done was a terrible act; but when she knowingly falsely claimed that he had done it, she committed a terrible act too. I think an argument could actually be made that she desecrated him: is the human spirit less of a “temple” than the human body?

I may have just persuaded myself that my student knew what she meant after all.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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