October 08, 2009

Equality in Justice: Cognitive Dissonance and Fame

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Two cases involving the rape of a young girl have been in the news: one involving Roman Polanski's arrest and the other about Elizabeth Smart's court testimony. While these cases have the “adult male-minor female” rapes as their basic similarity, most other things have been very different, especially in news reports and public reactions.

The “Polanski” case actually involves this Academy Award winning director’s flight from sentencing after his guilty plea and conviction in the rape of the 13-year-old girl. After 32 years, he was arrested recently in Switzerland to await extradition back to the United States for sentencing and additional charges of evading justice. The news reports focus on what a terrible time he’s had in life, from his family’s losses in the Holocaust to the murder of his pregnant wife by the Manson “family”, and on the fabulous movies he’s produced since living in Europe after he fled Los Angeles.

Until recently, little had been mentioned of the rape survivor, who is now an adult woman. A recent article fully identifies her and discusses the apparent civil settlement in which Polanski allegedly was to pay her half a million dollars, although no public documentation can confirm that she received those funds. Her lawyers’ requests to the court for him to pay the settlement past its due date ceased about the time she wrote a public letter stating that she thinks he should be able to return to the country, ostensibly to attend the Academy Awards show when he was nominated in 2002.

The "Smart" case involves the nine month long abduction of Utahan Elizabeth Smart. Her alleged kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell, subjected her to a “plural marriage” ceremony and according to Smart repeatedly raped her. She is now 21 and gave her testimony at the mental competency hearing of Mitchell just before leaving on her religious mission to France. Mitchell is cast as a religious fanatic who told her that he was doing what the lord wanted him to do. As of this writing, he has not yet been convicted of the crime as it has not yet been established if he is mentally competent to stand trial.

Let’s look at these cases sociologically.

Note the language used in the reporting of each case. Is it clear who the victim is in each case?

Many news reports and editorials about the Polanski case lament his treatment by the justice system, and some even suggest that he is the victim. Some articles discuss the cost of bringing him back to court, which makes the taxpayers the victim. Some articles focus on how the rape survivor, the actual victim, image said that he should be free to live his life and if she says that, well, we should let her decide, which reinforces the idea that he is the victim.

The Smart articles focus on her as the rape survivor and certainly do not cast Mitchell as a victim. They cast him as crazy or as a crafty rapist who acts like a religious fanatic so as not to take the blame for his actions.

The headlines use “Polanski” and “Smart”, not “Mitchell” or “Geimer”.

Polanski’s name is certainly a familiar one since he is famous. Smart has become famous as an icon of parental fear – the girl who was abducted from her bedroom at night. As is typical in rape cases, Samantha Geimer’s name was withheld when she was a minor yet she herself went public when she wrote the letter in support of Polanski. Mitchell is not a name familiar to people even though most know that some man abducted and raped Elizabeth Smart.

From this point forward, I will refer to the “Smart” case as the Mitchell case.

Note the basic features of each case: an adult man raped a young girl.

Is this contested in either case? Yes and no. Mitchell has been in a mental institution since his arrest in 2003 and the recent hearing was to establish whether or not he could stand trial. Polanski testified that he did the crime (although in his plea agreement he plead guilty to “unlawful sex with a minor”) and his latest issues revolve around his flight from the justice system to escape sentencing and serving more time. Mitchell has not been convicted yet Polanski has. However, in the news articles, Polanski’s guilt is downplayed and Mitchell’s is assumed.

Note the social class differences in each case.

While Polanski is clearly a member of the upper socioeconomic strata, Mitchell and his co-defendant wife are in the lower strata. Polanski was able to flee to Europe, continuing to make his films and generate his substantial income. While the social class status of Ms. Geimer is not fully apparent, it is likely that she and her family live a middle class life, even if she did not receive the settlement. The Smart family are firmly in the upper middle class of suburban Salt Lake City, while the Mitchell couple were basically homeless and firmly ensconced in the lower echelon of society’s social class levels.

Social class alone can explain much of the dynamics of these cases. Those with the higher class status tend to gain more favorable coverage in the press. Polanski received more favorable coverage than his victim did, and Smart certainly received more media attention than her abductor did.

One might hope that people who have been victimized would receive more careful and supportive press coverage, this certainly didn’t happen in the Polanski case.

Note the issues of fame and social power in each case

Social power derives from social class but also from fame. Smart was featured on America's Most Wanted and has spoken in public and to Congress about sexual image predator issues and legislation.

Most particularly in the Polanski case, fame insulates the perpetrator from paying his full debt to the justice system. So much so that some even call into question his guilt even though that had been firmly established in court. (See Harvey Weinstein’s quote about the “so-called crime” in the Los Angeles Times). Reaction to the Polanski case avoids discussion of his guilt in this crime of rape and focuses on other issues that are not salient. Consider how Mr. Weinstein might react if a female family member of his had been the victim in this case - might he advocate the release of that person as he does Polanski?

The exploitation of women in the entertainment industry is a related topic— some may not see why having sex with someone at a photo shoot was wrong – even if she was underage and under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Some also point to the mother who dropped her off at the house where the rape took place as culpable.

However, only the rapist is responsible for the rape, no matter what bad decisions others might have made.

What isn’t being talked about?

In the Polanski case, the exploitation of women is not a topic that many are choosing to discuss. How many other girls and women have been raped by people with power over them? We’ll never know, especially if those powerful people are not held to the legal standards that govern our society.

Absent from the discussion of the Mitchell case are the cultural underpinnings of how religion played a role in the abduction and rapes. The “plural marriage” as it was called when she was first rescued, was code for rape yet the word "rape" was not uttered for some time after she was freed. That this particular crime took place in a specific religious and cultural environment with a history of patriarchy (and, decades ago, of plural marriage) isn’t a coincidence. Elizabeth Smart was raised, as most of us are, in a culture of male dominance and female obedience.

It is also likely that Smart, like Patty Hearst and many other children abducted by sexual predators, was experiencing something akin to the Stockholm Syndrome. When she was first discovered, she did not readily identify herself. When held long enough under certain circumstances, people may “go along” with their captors and not escape when they might have had the chance.

So, how can we explain the different ways that we are reacting to these cases?

While both cases have at their core the rape of a 13- or 14-year-old girl by an adult man, public discussion and reaction to these cases is notably different. Social class, power, and fame all have their influences yet cognitive dissonance is also taking place.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when people have to reconcile two conflicting ideas at the same time. We often try and alter one of the ideas to be consistent with the other. For instance, people generally want to like and respect people with fame and power. When those people do bad things, we can react in many different ways but in the Polanski case, so many years after the event, some want to believe he paid his debt to society by having lived such a troubled life. Thinking of someone as both a good person and a rapist is very difficult to reconcile. Normally we decide that someone who commits rape is no longer a good person. In this example, many people, especially many in the entertainment industry, have chosen to downplay his actions to maintain the idea that their conflicting image of him as a good person.

But the justice system doesn’t see it this way, and after all, time spent living in a Swiss chalet isn’t the same as “doing time”. How do you think we would talk about the case if Elizabeth Smart’s alleged rapist had fled the country for more than three decades and evaded justice?

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83534ac5b69e20120a617e99f970c

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Equality in Justice: Cognitive Dissonance and Fame:

Comments

Equality in Justice: Cognitive Dissonance and Fame

Fame, money, or power should have nothing to do with the weight of someones punishments for their crimes. Everyone has a past and suffers but that does not justify committing crimes. Polanski should not be excused for what he did. If all victims of crimes acted out and raped or killed innocent people then the world would be chaos. Although it may be difficult to accept that someone with power, fame, and money could do something so horrible, we cannot be blind to it. Both girls who were raped are with out a doubt the victim here and Polanski and Mitchell are equally as guilty, not matter what their social status.

Although this topic of how the powerful always get the upperhand is fairly common, I find interesting the subjects that were contrasted in this article. It disgusts me in so many ways that there is in fact such a difference in the treatment of classes, and although this is nothing new it's something people tend to forget until something like this is brought forward. Some things will never change, like many like to say, "the only difference between martyrdom and suicide is press coverage."

Both Mitchell and Polanski are guilty. They committed the same crime the only difference is one has more money so he can pay the media to make him not look so bad while Mitchell is being slammed. We all should know the media is a brainwash system that tricks us unknowingly what to believe and whats in style. The case needs to be the facts and thats that they raped two girls and should be charged the same sentence.

We have actually been discussing this exact same topic in my college writting class recently. Everytime i hear someone supporting Polanski's case I am absolutlely discusted. Why does being rich and famous excuse you from being punished for a crime that you ADMITTED to committing? I think it is absolute bull that people make excuses for people who commit serious crimes such as rape. Both men are criminals and should be punished equally for what they did regardless of status.

i really want to agree with you, but i don't think these cases can be compared that way.

smart was abducted, geimer was left alone with polanski by her mother. geimer was one incident (not to say that it's not horrific), smart was continued sexual abuse not to forget that she was away from her family, kidnapping brings a whole new element into this.

i too am horrified at how so many are coming to defend polanski. but geimer saying she does not want him to be charged is not necessarily making him the victim, it is giving power to the actual victim, yes he broke the law, but the law is made to protect her, and if this will cause her more emotional trauma then many are upset that she has to go through this.

mitchell being homeless is not a surprise, i work with the homeless and, until recently with the economic situation, many homeless adults do have psychological issues that may make it impossible for them to hold a steady job or function in society. not all homeless, of course, i am a sociology student myself and i know the system has oppressed MANY. but many have mental health issues that cause them to be homeless, or develop them as a consequence of being homeless.

polanski should not get special treatment because of his wealth, fame and accomplishments, and i do agree that many are treating him this way. but if he committed the same crime as mitchell, i don't think ANYONE could defend him.
-- though i do agree that if mitchell had committed the same crime, he would not get support from the courts, or if it somehow did end up in the newspaper, no one would say, oh he is the victim here (well, there are some crazies that don't understand what rape is and think what he did is okay).

Speaking of 'cognitive dissonance', I thought the idea that, 'only the rapist is responsible for the rape, no matter what bad decisions others might have made', was a strange assertion for a sociologist to make.

-Zach H
I think that both Polanski and Mitchell are equally guilty. Saying that Polanski is not "as guilty" as Mitchel because Polanski's victim was left alone is like saying Mitchell is not "as guilty" because the victims family did not install burglar bars on her bedroom window. Under any circumstance, involving any person, and unwanted or unconsented sexual act is a crime at least. Polanski is being made the martyr because he is a well respected director. But the fact remains that he has evaded the justice system for 30+ years because of a rape he has openly admitted.
I understand people are concerned because it is ruining his social standing, but when some one commits rape, it should be understood, and in my opinion, encouraged that they're social standing is going to get knocked down a few rungs.
Let the just system have their say with Polanski.

It's situations like Polanski's and Geimer's that make women scared to stand up to their abuser. Because of Polanski's fame and social class the media is victimizing him and he is victimizing himself. Just because your wife and unborn child were tragically killed and your family felt the wrath of the holocaust doesnt give you the right to commit more tagedies and then have them be glamourized.

It's sad to see a case like this go on for so long and be debated into detail as far as both of these went. Both Mitchell and Polanski were guilty in both of their cases. There doesn't seem to be any reason for why they weren't pronounced guilty right away except for their money and fame. If they weren't famous or rich, then I don't think that the decision for the case would have been nearly as hard for them to make then they made it be. Our society today seems to base many things on the amount of money in a person's pocket rather than the character of the person as a whole which is not right

This shows how violent poeple these days really are. But I believe that this story gives women courage to stand up to people who are abusing them. I believe that both Mitchell and Polanski are guilty in their cases. I don't think that a persons fame or money should come into the equation of the trial as it did in both of these cases.

Social Class should have nothing to do with punishment in a serious crime of rape. Just because Polanski is rich and famous doesn’t mean that he should be able to get away with such a horrific thing and be made out to be the “victim” in the case. I take rape very seriously, especially because I know someone who has been the victim before. Famous or not, rape is not okay and Polanski and Mitchell need to be punished for their actions. I agree that Polanski’s case is clearly not anywhere close to what Mitchell did to Smart, but it is still rape in both cases.
I chose to use this article because when I was younger I always remember seeing Elizabeth Smarts case either on TV or in magazines. I seriously can’t believe they found her and she ended up being all right. It’s a miracle story and so every time I see something about it I always want to read or watch it. I truly wonder what will happen to Mitchell and to Polanski. I also want to say that I feel so much for Geimer and Smart’s families and the girls themselves who are the TRUE victims!

I think it is a tragedy Polanski is treated as a victim by the media and by other celebrities. It's as if they don't see him as a criminal at all. The rules shouldn't change if a celebrity or someone with loads of money commits a crime. Their sentence should be exactly the same as any other person who commits the crime. Yet, our American society treats them differently. Celebrities are seen as being exempt from the laws of society. Just because someone makes much more money than another person shouldn't mean that they are given extra rights or more privileges than a "normal" person. Both Mitchell and Polanski have committed the same crime and should be given the same sentence. Some people though don't see it like this. They victimize him and say he's suffered so much since being over there in Europe. The people that support Polanski however, would feel very differently if he raped their daughter. I have no doubt in that.

People are really violent these days. But women to have the freedom now and courage to stand up and fight for themselves. They are both guilty. It's sad that money can buy you out of a crime. They did what they did you can't deny that.

This is a basis of money in describing these situations , Polanski paid off a young victim, the other case is given the look at what happens when mental illness takes a persons life over, They still go to prison.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for everydaysociologyblog.com please .

Norton Sociology Books

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

The Real World

Learn More

Social Problems

Learn More

The Contexts Reader

Learn More

« Soap Operas and Postmodern Theory | Main | Institutional Review Boards: Why Do We Need Them? »