Revelation 3:16 – possibly the inspiration for Dante’s depiction of the gates of Hell – reads:

So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

Neutrality, in this passage, is no good thing at all. In Dante’s depiction (Canto 3 of Inferno), the people who run screaming around the gates of hell were never quite “alive” on earth because they were lukewarm.  They never quite took a stand on questions of either justice or mercy. Therefore, neither can they die.

So Dante (via the Guide) comments that these in-between people are envious of those who do have a final rest, whether that is in heaven or hell. In heaven or hell, a person experiences the grace of justice (hell?) or mercy (heaven?), but these people can have neither and so are removed from God – because they’re not “real” or alive.

I’ve been thinking about all of this in response to the several discussions about sexual assault that have been raised in recent weeks (Steubenville and Notre Dame being most present, but also less-well-known sexual assaults that I’m aware of occurring in more than one campus across the US). In particular, one article on the subject by Melinda Henneberger featured this notable quote from an alumna:

When there’s no language for yes, there’s no language for no.

The student’s quote comes in the midst of discussion about alcohol use on campus, and the fact that 90% of campus sexual assaults occur in relation to alcohol and other substances – which somehow seems to lend people a free pass because they weren’t really “aware” of what was going on.

This strikes me as so very similar to the Revelation quote and to Dante’s situation: there’s no room for making any kind of decision about sex at all, because the presumption is that at parties, students are operating in an “anything goes” kind of morality-free zone. Alcohol enables a lukewarm reaction – to the point that sexual assault seems like the status quo, and therefore okay (as exhibited in the videos about the Steubenville assault).

It’s not just the fact of this presumed morality-free zone; it’s that a morality-free zone enables people more easily to treat each other as not real, as objects, as not alive (again, as we saw in the Steubenville video).

Henneberger further observes:

Though alcohol is involved in more than 90 percent of campus sexual assaults, coerced sex under the influence is still more about power and rage than raging hormones. One guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer, Shea mentioned, had told her on their way to his room, ‘We’re not going to have sex tonight, because that would be wrong.’ It insulted her, she said, that he apparently thought that was a possibility. Hearing her describe this bleak social universe made me wonder whether sexual assault on this very Catholic campus has somehow become more morally acceptable, under cover of drunkenness, than sober consensual sex. (emphasis mine)

This “cover of darkness”, this attempt to frame a morality-free world to the point that it must be hidden even from one’s self is a scary thought. Drinking to blackout is seen as akin to drinking to the point where you can’t be held responsible for what you do, since you simply have no cognitive awareness of what you’re doing. Students can induce a situation which feels morally free because it holds no boundaries, no places to say yes or no. For to say yes or no requires the use of reason (as Dante also suggests in Canto 3), and drunkenness, at least in common campus parlance, means the loss of reason.  We use alcohol as an excuse (along with other substances) to do things that treat others as objects.

Henneberger strongly, and rightly, calls into question this assumption. Legally of course, we hold that people under the influence are still responsible for their DUIs and other crimes. Yet still the Steubenville and ND cases, among others, highlight that perhaps students are hiding “under cover” in self-made spaces that enable them to pretend they don’t have to say yes or no, and that enable them, consequently to hurt each other in very bad ways.  The tendency toward a gendered bias in this morality-free zone, too, is part of Henneberger’s point.   Men often congratulate themselves for participation in this morality-free zone, while women get named sluts.  The gates of hell are indeed agony for those who have been sexually assaulted.

So perhaps the bigger question to raise here is whether students want to get rid of these morality-free zones at all?

Or even bigger than that, do any of us want to get rid of our morality-free zones?

That is to say, college students are not the only ones who hide behind alcohol and other substances as a cover up for sins.  Spousal abuse can be fueled by alcohol use – but we hide behind alcohol as excuses for lesser losses of reason.  “I told my boss off,” or “I really got angry” or “I did that stupid thing at the party” but it’s okay because it was just the alcohol talking, we tell ourselves.

Alcohol and substance abuse provide particular angles into this kind of morality-free zone, but we don’t even have to blame those things.   Any time we say something like, “Oh, we might disagree, but you can have your belief and I can have mine,” and then go on doing what we do without having real discussion or thinking through their affects, haven’t we created a kind of morality-free zone?

We create a similar kind of space sometimes in our articulations of business activity.  As a member of more than one business ethics boards, and as a teacher of business ethics classes, I know by now that one of the first things people will say is that business allows for different kinds of actions than we’d do with our friends and family.   That will provide justification for so-called hard cases of paying low wages, or decreasing hours so as to prevent benefits- even though when it comes to a so-called personal ethic, my students will say that low wages or lack of benefits wouldn’t be how they’d want to treat their friends. Further – none of my students like whistle-blowers, even though the whistle-blowers are presumably on the “good side”.  For them, whistle blowers go against an unspoken code of conduct – which is that business should be allowed to perpetuate itself in any way possible.  And, they’ll go on to say: “This is justified because we need businesses to run society and give people jobs.  If we didn’t let businesses slide a bit we’d all lose out.”

It’s a lukewarm argument, one that keeps people in relative slavery to “the good of a business” and which justifies injustices, rather than taking a strong stand for or against them.  (I want to be clear and say that I know many, many business leaders who are horrified by this two-ethic kind of vision, even as they know that it exists – there are many people who aim to say clearly that there is no real distinction between “business ethics” and “personal ethics”.)

On a different note, my academic work has been looking at the ways we describe children’s moral lives. I am struck again and again by how often children’s lives get described as innocent – as morality free zones. Just as college students are not “really aware” of their actions under the influence of alcohol, so are children “not really aware” of what they’re doing. Just as equally, I am struck by how often children are not, in fact, innocent. My kids and their friends are quite capable of hurting each other.

To say this, by the way, should not take away from the fact that we should treat children in developmentally appropriate ways – and that children are ALSO capable of doing great good (as are we all). Yet – does “kids will be kids” become a cover hiding – and allowing – behaviors that we don’t feel comfortable taking a stand for or against?  We joke about the fact that two year olds can just use ipads – “Gosh, isn’t that cute” – without also reflecting on, and taking a stand on the ways in which technologies shape us in negative ways.  Sherry Turkle very poignantly describes a teenager’s complaints against his parents, for example, who are sitting at the dinner table using their ipads and ignoring their very real and present kids.

To return to sexual assaults on campus: I think that students who find themselves in a world where there’s no way to say yes, so there’s no way to say no, are acting exactly according to ways their culture has already habituated them to think.

There are so many instances where (it seems) we don’t need to say yes or no.  In fact, there are many instances where the default is to say nothing at all.

But I think the recent sexual assault cases should leave us seriously pondering this default mode of thought: Does the living the middle, while purposely taking no stand, leave us to experience the agonies of the gates of hell?