Welcome back, Chris Brown! Honestly, I thought we’d finished with you when you completed your entirely inadequate community service sentence for 1. beating Rihanna to a pulp and 2. repeatedly demonstrating that you had no real understanding of, let alone remorse for, what you’d done. Though the story’s ending was unsatisfying, I was just glad when it was over. But then you went on GMA and got asked a couple of totally softball questions about your lady-smacking ways, and you threw a tantrum, and broke a mirror, and also ripped your shirt off because sometimes, when The Man is keeping you down, the only thing left to do is show him your pecs. So much for the anger management classes, and hey, good to know you don’t limit your violent outbursts to women you’re dating. Female morning show anchors: check yourselves.
After the storm, the bloviating: online commentators kicked into action, most falling into one of two opposing camps: “Chris Sucks” (self-explanatory) vs. “Chris is a Victim” —of a tragic childhood, or racism, or some other unspecified bias that holds him to a different standard than those other lovable cutups, Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen. The latest to weigh in is Rosie O’Donnell, God help us, and she’s squarely in Camp Victim. She made her case on her Monday broadcast, and in defending Brown set off another wave of yapping.
Why won’t this stupid story go away, you ask? Well, in addition to the media-catnip elements of celebrity, scandal and violence, and of course the always-welcome opportunity to cover a thuggish-looking black dude who is in fact a thug, the reason we keep worrying this particular bone is that we’re genuinely confused about how to perceive Chris Brown. Yes, he behaved appallingly, broke the law, broke the rules of human decency. But we also know Chris grew up in a violent home; he witnessed his mother’s abuse and was himself mistreated. Kids who witness violence are prone to reenact it—so doesn’t he deserve our pity rather than our scorn? Moreover, Brown’s young age, his very proximity to that fucked-up past, means we factor it in when think about him, much more than we consider whatever misfortune befell Mel’s ancient self in his freaky medieval Catholic youth. What’s Chris Brown supposed to be, sinned against or sinner? We don’t know, so Camp Victim and Camp Sucks keep endlessly batting the ball back and forth.
I’m here to render an opinion from a third camp, where we eschew the either/or dichotomy and declare that Chris Brown is a victim, who also kind of sucks. Joining me in the Third Camp is Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams, who says sympathy is all well and good, but in the absence of “true changed behavior,” it’s not going to benefit anyone. It’s a fact that as a child Chris was exposed to horrible things, which scarred him and predisposed him to bad behavior. But that little boy has grown into a man who’s legally and morally responsible for his choices. We should use the compassion we feel for Chris the abused child to inform our interventions with Chris the asshole adult—not to excuse him from accountability. Understanding his background could (in an alternate universe in which I am Attorney General—more on that later) guide the criminal justice system in triggering consequences to Chris’s crimes that were appropriate to his case: mandated, long-term therapy; significant financial penalties; perhaps some adult education courses, to help make him less of a tool. Whatever the ultimate outcome, the best-case scenario for Chris, and the people who have to live with him, is one in which we use our sympathy to temper the manner in which we bring his sorry butt in line.