Rage Against the Outrage Machine

The note didn't include a link to the column, which I hadn't read at that point. Curious about what was inaccurate, I hunted around the website for a correction, but didn't find one. Then I found the column itself at the Washington Post, where it was originally published. As noted, it included a lot of contestable statements and analysis, some of which I disagree with. But there wasn't a correction there either. If something crossed the line from controversial, arguably wrongheaded opinion to clear factual error, I couldn't tell what that would be. 

Messenger was nice enough to respond to an email seeking clarification. "We generally don't publish corrections on syndicated material unless one comes through from the syndication (or AP, as the case might be)," he explained. "However, it's our belief that the thought that sexual assault victims are seeking some kind of special victimhood on college campuses, or that the campuses are seeking to provide some privileged status, is wildly inaccurate and offensive." He further clarified that he wasn't quite saying that there was a correctable error in the offending column. "Yes, we were applying the term to an opinion, which differentiates it from something that is correctable per se," he wrote. "But we believe it was both inaccurate and offensive, and it's why we pulled the column from our site and apologized to our readers for not showing better judgment in printing it."

An editorial-page editor is perfectly within his rights to prefer one syndicated columnist to another, to refrain from publishing material he judges to be offensive, and even to treat certain contestable opinions as "beyond the pale" for purposes of the space he curates. As much as I appreciate Messenger's willingness to engage, I think that he's treated Will badly by going a step further and declaring his column to be inaccurate without citing the alleged inaccuracy and showing its wrongness by stating what is actually correct. As a columnist, I'd be very upset if an editor publicly levied an accusation of factual inaccuracy without the ability or the willingness to back it up. A vague accusation is unfalsifiable and robs one of the ability to defend oneself with reason. It is also abnormal. It's as if the usual process of argumentative rigor doesn't apply in cases when taboos around a sensitive subject have been broken and elicited offense.

As a columnist, I'd be particularly upset if my editor also misunderstood and publicly mischaracterized my column's argument, as happened here. Contra Messenger, Will does not argue that "sexual assault victims are seeking some kind of special victimhood on college campuses"; Will implies that women who are not, in fact, victims of sexual assault are claiming to be in order to attain some sort of victim status. 

Jezebel's Erin Gloria Ryan wrote:

A major newspaper has kicked George Will to the curb over a recent column wherein the venerable conservative opinionator claimed that being a rape victim is a "coveted status" that comes with "privileges."

Again, this isn't quite right. Will is not talking to rape victims and saying, "Boy, are you guys lucky." Will's argument is that perceived victimhood of all sorts confers a coveted status on college campuses. In context, it is clear that Will only finds this unseemly in cases where the status afforded to victims winds up generating fake victims. It's hard to read the column and conclude that Will would have a problem with college students rallying around a classmate who'd been raped. 

These commentators are doing Will and their own readers a disservice. At best, they are construing his argument in the least charitable way possible. More often, they're outright mischaracterizing Will's actual argument in a way certain to maximize the offense, outrage, and umbrage-taking from their readers. If I were a rape victim, and a writer I trusted informed me that a Washington Post columnist said people like me wanted to be raped, or that we deserved to be raped, or that being a rape victim makes one fortunate or privileged, I'd be upset. But it ought to be clear enough that Will isn't actually making those arguments. Upsetting rape victims by telling them otherwise doesn't help anyone.

* * *

What did Will actually get wrong? David Bernstein suggests the possibility that his column is guilty of "downplaying what really is an epidemic of sexual assault on campus." Without defining "epidemic," it seems to me that Will is dismissive of a widespread, serious problem (though he has since avowed that he takes sexual assault very seriously). Bernstein also raises the possibility that "rather than encouraging faux victimhood," federal attention paid to sexual assault "is encouraging real victims to come forward and universities to be more conscientious." The effort may be too recent to draw empirical conclusions just yet. 

I'd argue Will is generally correct that: 

1. Some social dynamics at U.S. colleges make victimhood a coveted status. For example, the particular way that the concept of "privilege" is invoked has led to what Phoebe Maltz Bovy calls "scrappiness one-upmanship," in which upper-middle-class white kids grasp at any hint of adversity in their past. Bernstein writes, "It’s notable that a recent well-circulated column by a Princeton student taking exception to the 'check your privilege' meme took pains to note that the author himself is the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, the quintessential victims." 

2. That victim-status can confer privileges. This is often totally unobjectionable. Does anyone doubt, for example, that a college student whose mother or father was murdered would be excused from paper deadlines or the necessity of taking an awkwardly-timed midterm with the rest of the class? Of course, Will was talking about "victim status," not victim status. But the point still holds. In interviewing a troubled student who faked a hate crime, for example, I learned that she was motivated in part by a desire to be the focus of attention and support on a campus she generally saw as hostile, as well as to get resources to combat racism that were unavailable in the ordinary course of things. 

3) That people who self-identify as victims can proliferate as a result. For one example, consider the objectionable behavior of some men's-rights activists at Occidental College, as reported by ThinkProgress:

Occidental has been flooded with over 400 false rape reports this week as internet trolls have attempted to prove a point about the school’s anonymous reporting system, according to college officials. Now, administrators are being forced to weed through the barrage of reports to determine if any real sexual assaults were reported during that time. Members of the online communities Reddit and 4Chan, many of whom identify themselves as “men’s right activists,” started spamming Occidental after a user complained that it’s too easy to abuse the college’s anonymous reporting system.

“Feminists at Occidental College created an online form to anonymously report rape/sexual assault. You just fill out a form and the person is called into the office on a rape charge. The ‘victim’ never has to prove anything or reveal their identity,” a user in the “Men’s Rights” subreddit wrote, and provided a link to the school’s form.

The activists are disingenuously claiming victim status because Occidental set up a system where anyone who does so is afforded power over other individuals. For another example of self-proclaimed victims proliferating in response to incentives, consider the way high-school students understand college-admission essays.*

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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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