Dan Rottenberg on Rape and the Public Apology

What exactly is the local columnist sorry for?

I’m sick of the public apology. Now Dan Rottenberg has gone that route too. I had higher hopes for him, but then he got too deep into a viral mess that called for his castration and beheading and so forth, and he apologized. For writing what he thought.

It is certainly possible that what Rottenberg wrote was not very good, as he says leading up to his apology, and not tapped out with the appropriate “sensitivity.” He is editor of the online Broad Street Review, and in an essay a few weeks back, Rottenberg broached the unpopular notion that women should take some precautions out in the world, given that it’s a dangerous place. He cited the ordeal of Lara Logan, the CBS News reporter who was gang-raped by a mob while covering the political demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square; in googling Logan, Rottenberg had immediately landed on a publicity shot of her in a low-cut dress. He suggested that this was not wise comportment for a woman desiring to be taken seriously as a journalist.

That got him in a peck of trouble. In another column, Rottenberg summed up what quickly followed: “a vituperative firestorm in other publications and on several Internet social networks; a barrage of angry messages denouncing me as a ‘rape apologist’; an organized e-mail campaign demanding my dismissal; my banishment by two Philadelphia theater companies; and even the performance in Philadelphia of a short play titled “Dan Rottenberg Is Thinking About Raping You.”

What do you do about that? You write another essay. And he had it going pretty well:

Let’s assume that my column was misguided, wrongheaded, mean-spirited—in a word, bad. The antidote for “bad” ideas is better ideas. It’s a matter of joining the conversation in the hope of changing the speaker’s views through persuasion, not intimidation. …

Nevertheless, thousands of people … reacted by demanding that I be silenced or fired, or worse, for my bad thinking. In effect their response was: “We don’t want to join your conversation, and we don’t want anyone else to join it either.”

Rottenberg was a little defensive, maybe, but certainly making a case for hashing it all out within the high road of actual discourse, in terms of what he wrote, as opposed to his very existence amounting to a crime against humanity.

But then he did it. First Rottenberg addressed Logan’s bravery, and then Logan herself, directly:

I never said that you wore sexy outfits in Tahrir Square, nor did I suggest that you invited that rape. But some readers jumped to that conclusion, and in retrospect I should have written more clearly and framed the analogy more intelligently. I apologize to you and any other women who have been victims for any pain I’ve added.

I was about to write, “It was no doubt tough for Rottenberg, dealing with the firestorm of criticism,” or some such sensitive tripe, to be understanding of his predicament. Apologize, in other words, for piling on.

Screw that.

He caved in. Rottenberg caved in as everyone except Charlie Sheen and Tracy Morgan (who caved in and has come back for more) seems to, because there is no recourse against the volume of shouting out there except to apologize. And not just apologize for the actual transgression—for example, sort of initially missing the point that Logan was a journalist doing her job in a dangerous place and was raped—but to anybody out there who might be aggrieved.

Though now I’m feeling bad again, about adding on to poor Dan Rottenberg’s woes, between a rock and feminists. My opinion about what he said, and the way he said it, isn’t worth a damn. But it’s a strange time, if Rottenberg felt he had to apologize to women everywhere, just because he wrote what he thought. I’m sorry for that.