The Eggshell Skull Problem

So I'm not going to go into the whole detail of the Daniel Tosh Rape Joke Crisis on the internet because I think Lindy West has already said everything worth saying about that particular topic at Jezebel. But the whole dust up has made me revisit an issue in American discourse in general that I've come to think of as the Eggshell Skull Problem. It's named after an old principle in common law torts that basically says you take your victim as you find him when you do wrong. The paradigm case is hitting someone on the head in a way that would be harmless for most people, but which for a person with an eggshell thin skull would be life threatening. If that's the case and you do more harm than you thought you would in battering the guy with the eggshell skull, more tough luck to you because you're still on the hook for all the damages.

Where it comes to a physical harm, I think that makes sense. Physical harms of the sort tort law deals with can be expensive and the whole point of the rule is to make sure that the person who is in the wrong bears the cost rather than the injured party. So far so good. The Eggshell Skull Problem, however, is analogous but occurs in a place where we specifically don't hold people legally accountable for their harms, and that's in the realm of speech-acts. For those unfamiliar with the term, a speech-act is any activity whereby one accomplishes some end merely by speaking. The particular speech act in question in this latest controversy is the rape joke speech act. The rape joke is a difficult problem for an open society, and frankly I think our society deals with it particularly badly. That it does so is a result of The Eggshell Skull problem, and my aim here is to explain why I think that is.

Lazy Writing Part 1

I am not often one who gets my feminist hackles up, since i think mostly that sort of thing reduces mostly to class differences. One thing I am starting to find truly annoying, though, is the Dumb Bitch Who Doesn't Know What's Good For Her archetype. You know what I'm talking about: something is clipping along in a story things are progressing from Point A to Point C via Point B, when out of the blue because the plot is running too fast the writer figures that he needs to complicate things a bit and add a subplot of some kind and he introduces this character. And god is she annoying. Even though it's mindnumbingly clear to the reader, the writer, and every clued in character in the story what it is that this character should do in the situation they are thrust into, she instead does the exact opposite. Because this activity is in fact insane and is only there to complexify an otherwise extremely linear and predictable story, the writer needs to create a reason for her to do this thing. There are a few stock reasons, all of which generally work in service of some sort of neanderthal view of human nature, but by far the most irritating is the general appeal to hysterical femininity. The audience is in effect being asked to accept that this character is behaving in a completely stupid way contrary to what the protagonist needs her to do because he emotions have short-circuited her ability to think clearly and act sanely.

Jesus Was a Feminist

Lately, as is my wont from time to time, I have been rereading the gospels. As I've been doing so I came to the rather surprising conclusion that Jesus was advocating a sort of feminism in much of what he said.

Take for example his admonitions against adultery and divorce. Taken within the context of the times and the rights of women at the time, I think it's quite clear that these admonitions are in fact pragmatic pronouncements meant to help women in a time when they had very little ability to support themselves without male patronage in the form of a father or a husband. In fact, an adult woman of the time only had the options to live as a beggar or a prostitute if she was turned out of her father or husbands house. From this perspective, the prohibition on adultery, a prohibition that I had previously taken to be little more than typical of jewish prudishness about sex, made a lot more sense. The law, after all, is aimed at a male audience, so in a sense the prohibition on adultery is saying to men not to take sexual liberty with a woman and then leave her to fend for herself and your offspring, because to do so is to condemn her to poverty and prostitution. The same is true of the ban on divorce, that is, it is wrong for a man to set his wife aside because without him the realities of the times doomed her to a life of ignominy.

Doing a little googling, I found out that I was not the first person to come to this conclusion. I found the following excellent article which I think sheds a lot of interesting light on the sexual mores found in the New Testament, and which I think put some of the more offputting and strange ideas to be found in the gospels into a better light:


Also interesting were several statements in the gospel of thomas about making the female male and dissolving the distinction of male and female into spirit.