Sunday, December 9, 2012

Offensive Comments or Outrageous Policies? Our Focus Should be Simple

Untested Rape Kits

Nicholas Kristof is an American journalist, who has been writing for The New York Times since 2001. He is widely known for transforming opinion journalism due to his unique emphasis focusing on human rights abuses and social injustices.

In one of his many articles published in the Sunday Column, Kristof makes the argument that if we’re to be outraged by recent political candidates’ offensive comments made about rape, we should be even more disgusted by the offensive policies.  How can policies concerning rape be offensive? The fact that there are hundreds of thousands of rape kits — DNA evidence from rapes — that have never been tested, is a pretty good place to start. They just pile up in evidence rooms, often untouched and neglected.

If Kristof were to tackle this important issue by writing in the Official Style, it is highly likely the New York Times would throw his work straight into the trash. The Official Style tends to be as objective as possible, which often confuses readers and results in lack of voice. In my opinion, a successful journalist must have a voice; it is the only way to persuade readers into believing what you have to say. In his article, Kristof successfully uses the plain style to develop voice as well as clarity, as an attempt to relate to his readers. He even uses humor in his writing to even further connect with his audience:

“Partly to save money, those rape kits often sit untested for years on the shelves of police storage rooms, particularly if the victim didn't come outfitted with a halo”

In addition to his usage of dark humor, this sentence also uses the rhetorical device exemplum to provide specific examples to the reader about why and how these things are happening. He clearly states that the neglect of multiple rape kits can be traced back to desire to cut costs. There is absolutely no ambiguity. He plainly argues that rape kits are unjustly being left untested in storage rooms, leaving rape victims petrified, and rapists thinking they’re off the hook.  By ‘getting to the point’ Kristof is using the plain style effectively. He also is effective in breaking down the barrier between the author and the reader by being able to keep his overall reading ease grade level to around a 10. He adeptly balances his own credibility and reader accessibility throughout the piece. For example, he doesn't shy away from using simple phrases like, “verbal stupidity” and “stupid policies” but he is also quick to cite his sources, and provide detailed descriptions of where he is acquiring his information from. It doesn't hurt his credibility either that he is one of the most acclaimed journalists in the world.

Kristof also poses multiple different rhetorical questions throughout his article. For example, he states:

“If we’re offended by insensitive words about rape, for example, shouldn't we be incomparably more upset that rape kits are routinely left untested in the United States?

He is asking a question but not answering it because the answer is obviously implied. By using rhetorical questions in his article, Kristof effectively uses plain style. By comparing these two different concepts, he makes the answer to this question simple to the reader.  He is making a sharp contrast (by using antithesis) to show us how absurd it is that we direct all our energy and anger toward stupid comments made about rape. Distracted by words, we unfortunately turn a blind eye to the unjust policies happening every single day. By using rhetorical devices, Kristof makes a simple but compelling argument that our priorities are, to put it plainly, a little out of whack.

It is also important to identify the activity systems at work in this article:

So I’m glad that Democrats are jumping on Republican candidates’ words about rape, but I’d also like to see those Democrats contribute something more than sound bites”

 By reading this statement made by Kristof, we can better understand how this text functions in American society, specifically concerning the nature of politics. It is well known that The New York Times is a newspaper containing a liberal bias. It can be assumed too from the above statement that Kristof identifies with the Democratic Party, more than he would the Republican Party. However, it is almost impossible not to recognize Kristof’s tone in this statement. He is accusing the Democratic Party of being all words and no action. What Kristof is doing as a writer is rare and effective; he is separating himself from the politics by trying to reach the broader problem. He is breaking the norms of the activity system functioning within the political world to reach his own desired outcome of changing the policies and procedures of testing rape kits.

Democrats are often portrayed as the good guys, especially in liberal news media such as the New York Times. To be honest, I admit it’s hard not to view them as purely angelic when you have Republican candidates running around saying that rape is “something God intended to happen.”  However, Kristoff knows the problem is more complex than extreme right-wingers running their mouths on things they don’t understand. He digs deeper to the real root of the problem by addressing the indifference that leads our own criminal justice system to allow all of these rape kits to go untested. Republicans and Democrats are continually allowing this to happen, which is the real scandal regarding this issue.
Kristof also calls out individual health insurance companies in his article. This further increases the complexity of the activity system by creating tension:

“The lackadaisical attitude toward much sexual violence is seen in another astonishing fact: Sometimes, women or their health insurance companies must pay to have their rape kits collected”

It’s no secret. Kristof is appalled at our country’s inability to bring justice to victims of rape. The activities system functioning in this text allows readers to see how hierarchies of power function. Kristof sheds light on how power and money can result in outrageous policies. By using the plain style, he effectively calls attention to the problem, and asks for direct action:

“One way to start turning around this backward approach to sex crimes would be to support the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry (Safer) Act, a bipartisan bill in Congress that would help local jurisdictions count and test their rape kits”

Our focus should be simple. Let’s use this information to create change by bringing justice to the victims of sexual assault throughout our country. It is through our actions that we have the potential to create progressive results. 

Emily Stacken

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