Editorial: Hanover Skits; Word-Choice Dispute Is Enlightening

It is certainly not public education’s finest hour when a high school principal feels called upon to explain that a skit enacted by some of his students depicted consensual group sex as opposed to a gang rape.

But that was essentially the position that Hanover High School Principal Justin Campbell found himself in earlier this month as he continued to deal with the fallout from a preseason off-campus get-together at which a number of skits, including the one in question, were performed by freshmen football players at the instigation of older teammates.

Campbell, abetted by some parents, took issue with how the skit was described in a police report on which the Valley News, in the absence of information from school authorities, based its reporting.

Norwich Police Chief Doug Robinson, who reviewed the results of an investigation by school officials, decided that what transpired did not constitute hazing and brought no charges against those involved. But he described one of the skits as depicting a gang rape, a characterization to which Campbell took exception. In fact, the principal maintained, the skit did not depict a violent sexual encounter.

The report by school officials that Robinson reviewed was subsequently obtained by the Valley News from the Hanover police, who deemed it a public record, and it must be said that if Robinson in fact misinterpreted, school officials have only themselves to blame. Based on their interviews with students, they described the skit this way: “A girl refused to have sex with a boy and then five more guys came along and gang banged her.” A plain reading of that passage is that a gang rape was being enacted, and absent further description of the circumstances, Campbell’s characterization also contradicts the internal logic of the scene, positing as it does refusal of one followed by consent for the many.

That this dispute has surfaced now is doubly unfortunate. For one thing, it focuses attention anew on an ugly episode that was finally fading from public attention. Secondly, it undercuts the largely adroit handling of the incident by the school, which reprimanded those involved, cancelled the homecoming football game, and took steps to use what transpired as an opportunity to teach important lessons about the objectification of women.

Predictably, the attempt to clarify earned the condemnation of women’s groups and others who saw in it hairsplitting of a high order, given that the language of “gang bang” itself conveys the sense of someone doing something to someone instead of with someone. They also justifiably wondered why such depictions of male-female relations are thought to be humorous in current culture.

Perhaps one way to think about that question could be adapted from a theory of justice propounded by the philosopher John Rawls in a 1971 book of the same name. Rawls held that the only way to guarantee that the goods of society are fairly distributed and justice is being done is to draw a veil of ignorance over the person who is deciding what principles should apply. That is, the person doing the judging does not know how he or she is personally situated as to class, social status, wealth, intelligence, etc.

For the purposes of this exercise, imagine for a moment that you do not know whether you are male or female. The question we propose to you is whether if the person being “gang banged” by the “five guys” in the skit were a boy, whether the power relationships inherent in such a situation would appear in a different, and perhaps, truer light. Culturally, at least, we think the answer is yes, and therefore cause for further reflection on how women are regarded in American society.