Rage Against the Outrage Machine

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.*

Even though Will's big-picture thoughts on victim-status are plausible and arguably correct, it is pundit malpractice to pivot from those defensible general claims to a discussion of sexual assault, where the general rule is perhaps weaker than anywhere else. A more inapt example would be difficult to find, because of the uniquely powerful aversion most people have to others thinking or knowing they were raped (anonymous reporting systems like the one at Occidental are the exception that proves the rule). Rape is something many victims don't share even with parents or a spouse. Even if the way victim status works on campus has caused some number of women to falsely tell others they were sexually assaulted (just as it's caused men and women to fabricate hate crimes against themselves) it's strange to treat the phenomenon as if it's common based on nothing more than the observation that incentivizing something gets you more of it.** There are much easier ways to attain victim status than falsely alleging rape, and surely there are numerous motives behind the rape accusations that are false (eight to 10 percent are false according to provisional academic estimates). 

To sum up, the flaws in Will's column are real enough, or so it seems to me. But they're well within the normal range of wrongheaded things that newspaper columnists inevitably write if they do the job twice a week for years. What distinguishes Will's column is the fact that he addresses a sensitive, fraught topic. His critics' unstated belief is that because he dared to do so with inadequate sensitivity, they're justified in twisting his words in the most provocative way possible, all the while striking an exaggerated pose of righteous outrage. (Could it be that a curmudgeonly septuagenarian is both offensive to the sensibilities of his ideological opposites and has something valuable to contribute?) The perverse effect will be a broadened subset of cautious pundits who are less likely to write about rape or sexual assault at all (especially at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch!). Totally ignoring rape won't ever get a person fired. Writing about it might, especially if one's words aren't reliably conveyed. Public discourse is undermined by people whose focus is drawing red cards on their opponents.


* As a high-school junior, I was up very late for four or five nights in a row studying for finals in a semester when I had all honors and AP classes. I also had mock trial at night after school, and weightlifting for tennis in the early morning. School was a 30-minute drive away, most of it on the 405 freeway, and en route to tennis practice around 5 a.m., I fell asleep at the wheel, which I didn't then realize one could do. I drove off the freeway, hit a guardrail, flipped twice in the air longways, and skidded to an upside-down halt in a drainage ditch as the car burst into flames. 

A day later I awoke in the hospital. A day after that I was back home in my room with nothing to do but sleep, recover, and talk on the phone. What did a close friend say first thing when I called her? "You're so lucky—now you have your college essay."

** Perhaps Will wrote sloppily and didn't intend that. It is implied, not stated outright, and the column seems to suffer from trying to shoehorn into it one too many ideas.

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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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