Friday, June 12, 2009

Tribal and Emotional, not Detached and Rational

Last year Meredith Kercher, a young British overseas student in Italy, was murdered. Since she was young, pretty, and the murder was connected to sex, the story caught much attention. When it turned out her flatmate Amanda Knox, a pretty young overseas student from Seattle, may have been involved, and if so there was a deeper sexual layer to the tragedy, the story became front-page news in Italy, the UK, and parts of the US. It still is.

I've been following it to the extent that the Guardian, my daily paper, has it at the top of their front page; this week it also reached the front page of another of my daily papers, the New York Times, where an op-ed claimed Knox has been framed by a scheming Italian prosecutor villain. That op-ed has been on the NYT home page for a few days already (!).

This morning Paul Harris at the Observer, that's the Guardian's mildly saner little sister, writes about the phenomenon. He starts by noting that the Knox story-line is so noxious because she's a pretty young woman - her boyfriend and co-defendant never gets noticed at all. He then goes on, however, to describe the mechanism of the fascination, in terms which exactly precisely fit the way Israel is treated:

The only certain thing about Knox is that she has struck a cultural chord that has nothing to do with the evidence and everything to do with being young, female and photogenic. If she were a man, neither her defenders nor her attackers would likely be giving her half the attention they are. It is noticeable that Sollecito is virtually ignored by the press. The debate over Knox is especially vicious on the internet, where blogs fight over every aspect of the case. "Anyone who writes about this case will be attacked no matter what they say. For or against. It is really ugly," said Candace Dempsey, whose blogging on the trial has led to her writing a book about it.

For almost everyone involved in covering the story, online threats and abuse are common. Steve Shay, who wrote the Herald story that so angered Mignini, was stunned to find his picture posted online by outraged anti-Knox bloggers. He was also accused of being in the pay of pro-Knox supporters. "I felt uneasy. Just because you are paranoid does not mean someone isn't out to get you," Shay said. The sheer ferocity of the abuse is one reason why only Bremner has openly come out on behalf of Friends of Amanda. Other members are keeping anonymous. "We are not yet ready to come out in public just yet," said one close friend of the family.

Some cultural dynamics are vastly more powerful than centuries of exohrtation to seek facts with calm rational methodology.

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