Forcing Tradition

An image of blue and red law books on a shelf

Recently on Netflix I watched an interesting episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (“Producer’s Backend,” season 16 episode 3, which originally aired 8 October 2014). The narrative in the episode focused on a movie producer named Brubeck who used his power over young actresses — i.e., girls under the age of consent — to force them into sexual quid pro quos. Throughout the episode, the SVU detectives uncovered a number of victims, but in each case their hands were tied insofar as the assaults took place so far in the past that the incidents were past the statute of limitations.

As they investigated victims coerced more recently, they found that the movie producer had learned to cleverly skirt age of consent laws:

Detective #1: In the last nine years, all of Brubeck’s movies have been shot in Pennsylvania, Washington, or Montana.
Detective #2: All states with an age of consent of sixteen, and a mistake of age defense.
Prosecutor: Meaning, the guy can have sex with a fourteen-year-old and claim that he thought she was sixteen.

Despite this, the captain insists on moving forward with the investigation: “We’re not giving up. … There has got to be a way to stop him.”

Upon reviewing audition tapes turned over by the producer’s defense lawyer, they discovered one that was filmed in Winnipeg, Canada. The producer had flown to Winnipeg, auditioned, and then had sex with a sixteen-year-old girl — but for a movie idea invented by the producer merely as a pretense for the sexual excursion to Canada.

In the climactic scene of the episode, the detectives and the prosecutor confront Brubeck and his defense lawyer with the evidence.

Brubeck: Look, are you asking, did I sleep with young, wannabe actresses? Yes, but I kept it legal.
Prosecutor: You may have thought you did.
Brubeck: No, I did. … She’s sixteen, the age of consent in Canada. Not illegal.

At that point, the prosecutor confronts the producer with a subpoenaed script for the invented film, which turns out to be ten pages of gibberish.

Prosecutor: There was no movie. There was never any intention to make a movie. [Turning to the producer’s defense lawyer:] Your client traveled to Canada with the primary purpose of having sex with someone under the age of eighteen. A federal crime.
Brubeck: What is he talking about?
Prosecutor: Sexual tourism. Section 24-23-C of Title 18. “Engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places.” Punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
Defense lawyer: You can’t be serious. That law’s intention is to stop pedophiles from flying to Thailand to have sex with twelve-year-olds.

The captain retorts, “If this is the only way that we can get you, then this is the way you’re going down.”

In this example, the police and the prosecutor were hermeneuts entirely uninterested in the purported original intentions of the law’s authors. Instead, they viewed the law as a repository of authoritative rules that could be activated (or potentially ignored) at will for their immediate social goals—in this case, punishing this rapist.

We might better understand “religious practitioners” of particular “traditions” better if we thought of them like these prosecutors or lawyers rather than “faithful adherents.” Like the law, cultural traditions have wide variety of authoritative rules, doctrines, etc. that can be activated or ignored at will for whatever immediate social goals practitioners might be pursuing.

Why do Muslims avoid alcohol? We might say: “the Qur’an forbids wine.” But such an answer ignores the fact that millions of people who identify as Muslim and consider themselves faithful followers of the Qur’an do, in fact, drink alcohol. Like lawyers, interested hermeneuts can dig through available archives to find forgotten qualifications, exceptions, and so forth, which can be activated to justify contemporary social interests.

Lawyers swear to defend the law, but as scholars we would be foolish to assume that “the law” exists independently of its interested application and ongoing precedent. Similarly, religious practitioners might swear fealty to their cultural traditions, but we would be foolish to assume that those traditions exist independently of their ongoing and interested interpretation.

Rather than explaining people’s behavior as something caused by tradition — i.e., “that’s what Islam requires” — perhaps we should explain the “tradition” as something retroactively caused by contemporary interests.

While common sense tells us that people “follow” tradition or that tradition forces people to behave in certain ways, common sense also tells us that lawyers will use whatever resources from the tradition of law at hand to get the result they want. The relationship of the agent to tradition in the latter stereotype is arguably far more helpful for understanding how culture functions than the former.

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