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.

Then there's the gig Will lost over this column. In a Wednesday editor's note, Tony Messenger, editorial-page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, announced that his newspaper would no longer run Will's syndicated column and will instead publish Bush administration veteran Michael Gerson on Thursdays and Sundays. The "refreshing and revitalizing change" had been under consideration for some months, the editor's note explained, "but a column published June 5, in which Mr. Will suggested that sexual assault victims on college campuses enjoy a privileged status, made the decision easier. The column was offensive and inaccurate; we apologize for publishing it." 

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.*

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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