Rage Against the Outrage Machine

The most searing critiques of George Will's much-maligned column on rape misrepresent his arguments, illustrating a common flaw in American public discourse.
Reuters

The scene is familiar to every soccer fan: An aggressive defender slightly bumps a striker, who reacts as if struck by a taser's barb. His arms flail. His legs crumple beneath him. He writhes on the turf, grabbing at indeterminate pain. And then, once the ref either does or does not call a penalty, he pops up, unharmed as ever, and plays on.

The Internet too often resembles that scene. Every week, a fraught subject is broached, usually imperfectly. Perhaps a wrongheaded or offensive claim is made. Plenty of thoughtful people offer smart, plausible rebuttals. But they're overshadowed by distortionists with practiced performances of exaggerated outrage. The object isn't a fair debate—it's to get the other guy ejected.

Last week, George Will was the focus of the umbrage-takers. His June 6 column, "Colleges become the victims of progressivism," isn't without flaws. The worst of them may deserve a yellow card for a careless, overaggressive tackling maneuver. But only by misrepresenting Will's argument can his least responsible critics insist that, after four decades and thousands of columns in the Washington Post, he ought to be fired from his twice-weekly perch for these 753 words.

The column is about higher education. Universities are learning "that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous ('micro-aggressions,' often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate," Will argues. "And academia’s progressivism has rendered it intellectually defenseless now that progressivism’s achievement, the regulatory state, has decided it is academia’s turn to be broken to government’s saddle."

That isn't the best beginning for a man whose prose is crystalline at its best. It's more difficult than it should be to discern that Will is distinguishing "the status of victimhood" from actual victimhood. When he says that colleges are causing "victims" to proliferate, he is referring to a category of people who he doesn't regard as actual victims but who have either declared themselves to be victims or have been declared victims by others within the subculture of elite academia. 

The distinction is core to the column and consistent throughout.

In the section on sexual assault, for instance, he recounts a hotly debated incident at Swarthmore that many regard as rape and many others, like Will himself, characterize as embodying "the ambiguities of the hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication of today’s prolonged adolescence of especially privileged young adults." Elsewhere, Will makes it abundantly clear that he is talking about people who are said to be victims but aren't actually victims by putting scare quotes around "sexual assault victims" and "survivors." 

This did not stop his critics from eliding that core distinction. Anti-sexism group UltraViolet declared, "The Washington Post actually just published an opinion piece mocking sexual assault survivors and saying that women want to be raped." Actually, Will neither wrote nor believes that women "want to be raped," and mocked only false claims that sexual assault has occurred. At worst, Will implies many women want to be seen as having been sexually assaulted and fabricate such incidents. (More on that wrongheaded but distinct claim later.)

National Organization for Women President Terry O'Neill followed suit, citing Will's column, though not quoting it, while demanding that the Post fire him. "It is actively harmful for the victims of sexual assault when that kind of man writes a piece that says to assault victims, 'it didn't happen and if it did happen you deserve it,'" she stated. "That re-traumatizes victims. I can't believe that Mr. Will has had this experience if he would put out such a hateful message."

But Will did not say and almost certainly doesn't believe that sexual assault victims "deserve it"; nor does he intend to tell sexual assault victims "it didn't happen." His purpose and intention is to castigate people who see sexual assaults where none happened, not to behave hatefully toward actual victims of sexual assault. If he misjudges a situation and winds up doubting the veracity of an actual victim, it is perfectly fair to criticize him, but his transgression shouldn't be muddied. 

Judd Legum wrote at ThinkProgress:

Washington Post columnist George Will wrote a column claiming that being a rape victim is now a “coveted status” that college women seek out. Will argued that complaints of rape and sexual assault on college campus were overblown. He also suggested that women claiming to be raped were “delusional.”

Here's what Will actually wrote, after a paragraph on trigger warnings and speech codes (my emphasis): "academia, with its adversarial stance toward limited government and cultural common sense, is making itself ludicrous. Academia is learning that its attempts to create victim-free campuses—by making everyone hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimizations—brings increasing supervision by the regulatory state that progressivism celebrates." He does not suggest that women claiming to be raped were delusional—he suggests attempts to create a victim-free campus makes everyone hypersensitive or "delusional" about victimizations

Criticizing that argument is fair game. Summarizing it as "George Will says rape victims are delusional" is wildly unfair. 

I emailed Legum about his piece:

You wrote, "George Will wrote a column claiming that being a rape victim is now a 'coveted status' that college women seek out." I'm writing about that column, and I may take issue with your characterization, but I wanted to reach out first. It seems to me that Will isn't arguing that women seek out being rape victims, but that they seek out victim status, which causes some to falsely claim that they've been sexually assaulted. That is obviously a highly controversial and arguably wrongheaded claim in itself. I certainly wouldn't make it. But it's a different claim than the one you characterize Will as having. Or so I think after reading both of your pieces. But I am open to being wrong. Am I?

Here's how he replied:

Thanks for reaching out. 

I do think that is what Will was saying, based on this: "that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate." I base it on two things. First is the word "coveted" which means something that you hunger for. And second is the idea that that coveting makes victims "proliferate." He then tells a story of a woman who was raped as an example. So he's not limiting this to people falsely claiming they are raped. He's saying that women are actively putting themselves in positions to be raped to achieve this coveted status.

To me, this is a clear, if earnest, misreading. Whatever one thinks about the Swarthmore woman whose story Will relates, it's clear that the columnist himself does not believe that she was raped or sexually assaulted. This is arguably to his discredit, but if that is a shortcoming, it is different than him making the claim that women are going out and purposefully getting themselves raped.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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